January 19th, 2012

DISCUSS: Is School Choice Good Or Bad For Public Education?




School choice is a major issue in education as more and more states move to a charter model. We convened several experts to discuss the topic; we also covered this issue for PBS NewsHour, which you can watch above.


Andrew Coulson, Cato Institute

Listen to Mark Twain, among others, for advice

Andrew Coulson directs the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. Before studying education policy he was a systems software engineer for Microsoft.

Is school choice a good thing or a threat to public education? The answer depends on how we define those terms. “School choice” can mean anything from open-enrollment, to charters, to vouchers, to moving house in search of a different school. That’s too broad a term to be useful, so I’m going to dispense with it and talk about specific policies instead.

“Public education” can simply refer to our current district-based, state-run school system; or it can refer to our shared educational ideals: universal access to a quality education that prepares children for both success in private life and participation in public life. I use “public education” in the latter sense.

As someone who is firmly committed to public education, I think it’s best to pursue it by the most effective means possible. So I spent four years in the mid-1990s studying historical school systems to discover which had done a good job of advancing our shared educational ideals, which hadn’t, and why. Subsequently, I collected and reviewed the modern scientific literature comparing different kinds of school systems all over the world, for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. And most recently, I’ve studied aspects of charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits using statistical methods — trying to answer questions raised by my earlier investigations.

What I’ve learned is that one approach to organizing and funding schools consistently does a better job than any other: a free educational marketplace driven by the choices of families, in which parents pay directly for their children’s education to the greatest extent possible, and in which educators are free to teach what and how they deem best.

How to ensure universal access to such an education marketplace? To help middle-income families, cutting their taxes has proven the best mechanism, since it preserves their freedom of choice. Such programs, called direct education tax credits, already exist in Iowa and Illinois on a small scale.

To help lower-income families who owe little or nothing in taxes (and so don’t benefit from direct credits), scholarship tax credit programs are the best solution. These programs, operating in half a dozen states, provide dollar-for-dollar tax cuts to those who donate to non-profit K-12 scholarship organizations. The scholarship organizations use the donated money to help low income families afford independent school tuition.

So, to paraphrase the apocryphal Mark Twain quote: we can’t let our current approach to public schooling get in the way of public education.


Richard Kahlenberg, The Century Foundation

Look to public magnet schools as an option

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.

Advocates of choice are absolutely right when they suggest that poor kids stuck in failing high poverty schools deserve a chance to choose a better school. School quality shouldn’t depend upon what sort of neighborhood your parents can afford to live in, and students don’t have time to wait and hope that the latest education reform will turn around their local failing school.

But the type of choice afforded to low-income students matters enormously, and those most in vogue today — charter schools and private school vouchers — have on the whole been disappointing.

Private school vouchers, the brainchild of conservative economist Milton Friedman, have consistently produced results that are no better than the regular public schools. Vouchers raise serious questions about public accountability and the separation of church and state. And fundamentally, they undermine the ideal of the “common school,” in which children of all different backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American.
Charter schools, largely freed of teacher union influence, are supposed to provide a superior alternative to unionized public schools. But despite the fact that 88% of charters are nonunion, the most comprehensive study of charter schools found that they outperform regular public schools only 17% of the time. Charters could in theory be more economically and racially integrated than regular public schools — and some are — but most are actually more segregated.

Public magnet schools, by contrast, produce far better results on the whole. These schools are designed to avoid what a long line of research suggests is harmful to education: concentrations of school poverty. By attracting a healthy economic mix of students, many magnets create an environment where classmates encourage achievement, parents are actively involved in school affairs, and excellent teachers educate students to high expectations.
Low-income students can achieve when given the right kind of educational environment. Economically disadvantaged students given the chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of similar students stuck in high poverty schools on the 4th grade math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Magnet schools recognize that school choice can be used to attack the real enemy of equal opportunity, which is not the existence of unions that give teachers voice but the reality of pervasive economic segregation in American schools.


Mike McShane, University of Arkansas

Any school can be a “public” school

Michael Q. McShane is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Prior to that, he was an inner city high school teacher in Montgomery, Alabama.

When I tell people that I do research on school choice, I tend to get a common response. It usually goes something like this: “Oh, so I guess you don’t like public education.”

Commence slamming head into desk. I (and most school choice proponents) have absolutely no problem with public schools. I just define “public” differently.

As longtime civil rights leader (and school choice supporter) Howard Fuller likes to say, public education is an idea. It is the idea that we have an obligation to provide for the education of the children of our society. Too often we confuse the idea with the mechanism we have chosen to deliver it, that is, traditional public schools. But we don’t have to keep doing that.

In my opinion, any school that serves to educate students in the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed in life can be a public school. If in addition to knowledge and skills they want to teach religion or pretty much anything else, that doesn’t really bother me, provided that parents are free to choose to send their children there. Remember, no one is forced to use a voucher or tax credit scholarship or is forced to attend a school that teaches an ideology with which they disagree.

They are, however, currently forced to send their children to schools that fail to teach their children basic literacy and numeracy if they lack the financial means to move to a better neighborhood or pay private school tuition. And what’s worse, individuals who oppose school choice actively work to keep children trapped in these schools, even when they know that the children will not learn there.

Who doesn’t like public education now?


Cassandra Hart, UC-Davis

What’s the value of vouchers?

Cassandra Hart is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. She studies education policy, with a recent focus on means-tested voucher programs.

Particularly contentious are voucher programs, which channel public resources to private schools. Skeptics of these programs charge that they aim to strip public schools of much-needed resources and attract the most capable students away from public schools, leaving public schools with the hardest-to-educate students. While some (likely small) share of voucher advocates may hold such aims, the structure and enrollment patterns of these programs suggest that they may pose less of a threat than their opponents fear.

Because universal vouchers are politically contentious, most programs have been structured to target specific populations who may otherwise face genuine difficulties obtaining high-quality education through neighborhood schools. For instance, many states target vouchers to low-income students, because while wealthier families can afford houses in good school districts, housing zoned to high-quality schools may not be affordable for poorer families. However, voucher opponents may be justified in concerns that programs will become less targeted over time; Milwaukee recently lifted income restrictions to allow participation with family incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty line (~$67,000 for a family of four).

Moreover, voucher programs have historically produced less “cream skimming” than opponents fear. Research indicates that students who participate in voucher programs are relatively disadvantaged, even among the pool of income-eligible applicants. They also tend to be lower-achieving compared to both income-eligible public school students generally and compared to other eligible students within their original public school who opt not to use vouchers. These facts suggest that fears of cream-skimming may be overblown.

While voucher programs are not as threatening as opponents fear, however, neither does research suggest that they are a silver bullet that will fix all ills of the public school system. The value of vouchers remains open for debate.


James Boutin, Public School Teacher

Are we washing our hands of impoverished communities?

James Boutin is a public school teacher in SeaTac, WA. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network and previously taught in public schools in New York City and Washington, DC. He blogs at An Urban Teacher’s Education.

The argument over school choice is merely another argument over which should hold primacy: the group or the individual. Is public education about providing a quality education to all students, or only to those students whose families have the means and motivation to seek it out?

Underprivileged schools contain a diverse group of students. There exist both apathetic students with staggeringly low skills and students on and above grade-level who fight desperately to learn, and, of course, so many in between. School choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools serves only one section of any given underprivileged school when it works well (i.e. when charters and vouchers actually provide a more quality education than the traditional public school). Families who are displeased with the services being provided by their local public school choose higher performing charter or private schools and leave the often poorer, lower skilled student behind. Because the quality of a given school is largely determined by the students who attend, the traditional public school often then ends up with less money to accomplish a more difficult task. This is why Richard Kahlenberg argues so effectively in favor of magnet schools.

Arguments in favor of school choice often rely on the false notion of the rational market. Douglas Harris is right to point out that it is very difficult to know what a good school is. Few parents are provided the necessary tools to make a sound judgement, particularly when the market for schools has created obscene marketing techniques in cities across the country. Charter school networks like Harlem Success Academy have been accused of targeting the easiest students to educate - i.e. screening out those with disabilities or English language learners - and counseling out those with behavioral problems. When students who come from families with means and motivation are separated from those without, a new era of school segregation has begun, one just as pernicious as pre-1954.

Now we can see clearly that public education’s underlying tension is the same as at its inception: individual determination versus the advancement of the interests of our democracy as a whole. Because studies show that negative rates of obesity, teenage pregnancy, imprisonment, crime, and social mobility are all associated with countries that maintain relatively high rates of economic inequality; and it is clear that economic inequality is strongly associated with educational advancement; I think we’d be right to worry that our current version of choice may not be in our collective best interest.

If the purpose of choice is to improve the educational outcomes of as many students as possible, then choice will have to be refashioned so that it doesn’t allow for the negative effects on public schools and public school space we’re currently seeing from Los Angeles to New York to Miami.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of providing choice is merely to wash our hands of the problems of impoverished communities by saying, “Look, we gave you a choice,” I’m afraid we’ll all be paying for that choice for a long time to come.


Doug Harris, University of Wisconsin

What is the basis for parental choice?

Douglas N. Harris is an economist and Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Education has a problem. No, not the usual ones we hear about in hyperbolic news media and political debates. The one I have in mind goes to the nature of education and the potential of reforms like school choice.

The problem is that it’s difficult to know, at present, whether any given school is good or not. Even when people agree on what “good” means, the people we typically consider to be the key educational stakeholders — parents and taxpayers — don’t actually see what happens in the classroom.

This is a big problem for school choice. Whether in the form of charter schools, vouchers, or tuition tax credits, the argument for school choice is that it lets free markets reign, allowing parents and students in failing schools to search for better options, and that schools will be freed from the shackles of bureaucratic school districts. But if parents are making decisions based on limited or bad information, what ends up driving parents’ choices and school administrators’ practices? Unfortunately, not always the kinds of things we would hope for. Parents focus on student demographics, class size, and safety — and, increasingly, school themes like “science and technology” — none of which say much about school performance.

Student test scores are gaining interest, but these omit critical information about school climate and college entry and completion. Also, just reporting the raw end-of-year results tells us nothing about what schools contribute to student learning, which is what school performance is all about. As I argue in my book on the topic, we need to fix this by accounting for the level of learning students start when they enter the school. Schools should not be punished for serving students who start off far behind. Instead, they should be rewarded when they help these students grow and develop.

More than just a market issue, administrators need good performance information to drive internal organizational improvement. If neither administrators nor parents have good performance information, are schools likely to improve their practices? Perhaps a little, in the long run, but this just reinforces the fact that markets in these circumstances do not operate at anything like full tilt. Perhaps this is one reason why the evidence points to mixed results for charter schools and vouchers.

While school choice programs expand, we stand waiting for the tools to make them work.


Greg Forster, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Put the parents back in charge

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is co-author of Education Myths and co-editor of Freedom and School Choice in American Education.

School choice is the best-proven way to improve public schools and private schools alike. Nationwide, almost 200,000 students are taking advantage of school vouchers and similar policies to attend private schools. Nine out of the ten empirical studies conducted using random assignment — the gold standard of social science — have found that school choice participants achieve better academic outcomes. Nineteen out of the twenty studies examining how choice impacts public schools (using a variety of methods) found that academic outcomes in public schools were improved as a result of the programs. In both cases, no studies have ever found a negative impact. The research also consistently shows school choice improves school safety and discipline, services to disabled students, the teaching of civic values, and racial integration; it also saves taxpayer money by removing inefficiencies like administrative bloat.

But the most important reasons to support school choice go far beyond these numbers. School choice improves education because it takes power away from the politicized bureaucracies that currently run the public school system, putting it back in the hands of parents and schools. There are lots of teachers in the public school system who want to do a better job of serving their students, but they’re limited by a system that’s designed to serve the bureaucrats, not the kids. By putting parents back in charge of education, school choice forces the political and bureaucratic system to get out of the way, empowering teachers who care about delivering a good education. Right now, education is a government monopoly; that’s why our schools are mediocre, and that’s why education is the only sector of American society where we still do things pretty much the same way we did them a hundred years ago. Only school choice can create space for educational innovators to invent the 21st century school.


Jane Hannaway, American Institutes for Research

A key tie is between accountability and consistency

Jane Hannaway is a Vice President at the American Institutes for Research and the Director of CALDER (National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

School choice, in one form or another, has been part of education in the United States since the early days of the country. Publicly supported choice programs, however, are more recent and the form they take is continually evolving. Among other possibilities, they include charter schools, voucher programs, magnet schools, tuition tax credit programs, dual enrollment plans, and homeschooling.

From a public policy perspective the question is — with what effect? The arguments for and against choice programs are clear; but the consequences, especially from a public interest point of view, are less so. Are students who attend choice schools better off than similar students attending traditional schools? Do they learn more? Do the offerings or the school philosophy of choice schools better match the needs or objectives of their students? What are the societal and community consequences of choice schools that would merit public support? Are choice schools more efficient — presumably because they face market pressure? Does competition from choice schools spur traditional school to higher performance? On the downside, do choice schools foster economic or social segregation? Do they cream skim students, making them look more effective than they are, while simultaneously depriving traditional schools of the better students and, perhaps, the most quality-conscious parents. What information do parents use, and how well do they use it, when making choices about school alternatives?

Early research on choice schools, notably the work of James Coleman in the early 1980s, focused on comparing Catholic schools with public schools. More recently, research has focused on charter schools, no doubt because charter schools are increasingly promoted as a strategy for reforming sluggish public schools, especially in urban areas. Charter schools in the U.S., doubling to over 5000 in the last decade, now serve nearly 1.5 million students. In the District of Columbia nearly 40 percent of students attend a charter school, and over 60 percent in New Orleans. The federal government is promoting greater charter school development through its Race to the Top (RttT) initiative as a way to increase student achievement.

The research results on charter schools are mixed. Some charter schools outperform traditional public schools while others do not. The reasons for the differences are not entirely clear. Charter schools face two forms of accountability. They operate in a consumer choice system so presumably must be responsive to client preferences. However, there are good reasons to expect quality control through parental choice not to be particularly effective since there are costs to children changing schools which makes parents reluctant to do so. Charter schools also operate in a regulatory system — they receive their charter to operate from a public authority that can revoke the charter if they do not conform to the terms of the charter and perform up to par.

Revoking or not renewing charters and closing schools, however, has not been common. So, in general, external accountability has been weak, resulting in some schools doing well and others not. But things may be changing. New York City recently refused to renew a charter simply because its performance was mediocre, a pattern we might see emerging across the country. Under these conditions — where charter schools are really held to some performance standards — higher levels of charter school performance may more consistently emerge.


Clint Bolick, Goldwater Institute

Schools are not immune from the laws of economics

Clint Bolick is a Vice President at the Goldwater Institute.

One of the disappointing features of modern political discourse is to propensity to question the motives of one’s opponents, rather than to engage their arguments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fight over school choice, in which opponents seek to characterize proponents as part of a nefarious conspiracy to de-fund public schools. I suppose such a tactic is necessary because school choice opponents lack substantive arguments to support their position.

In 1999, Matthew Miller conducted an interesting experiment that he wrote about in The Atlantic. He asked proponents and opponents of school vouchers whether they would support a combination of school vouchers paired with large increases in public school funding. School choice proponents (myself included) by and large said yes, while school choice opponents largely said no. That suggests that some self-styled public school advocates would trade the increased public school funding they so cherish in order to preserve a status quo in which they have outsized influence.

One’s position on school choice depends on whether one views public schools as a means to an end or as an end in themselves. Those who take the first position support strong and effective public schools, but also favor alternatives when public schools fail. Those who take the opposite view support public schools — and greater funding for public schools — even when they fail in their core mission.

The fact is that for millions of schoolchildren, especially those who most desperately need a good education, the public schools are failing. One-size-fits-all rarely works for anything, and especially not for education. We have the technological capacity to deliver a high-quality, highly individualized educational experience for every child. But the current system is more focused on the interests of providers than the intended beneficiaries. We should provide the greatest possible array of educational options, from open public school enrollment to magnet schools to charter schools to vouchers to distance learning to education savings accounts where families can choose from a cafeteria-style menu of educational options tailored to their children’s unique needs. We should be far less concerned about where children are educated and more focused on whether children are learning.

Schools are not immune from the laws of economics. Competition and accountability strengthen institutions. Public schools that are fulfilling their mission will flourish with greater educational choices. True advocates of public education support education choice.


Sean Corcoran, NYU

The risks deserve more scrutiny

Sean P. Corcoran is an economist and associate professor of education economics at New York University. His research focuses on three areas: human capital in the teaching profession, education finance, and school choice.

School choice comes in many flavors, from vouchers, charters, and magnet schools to open choice, inter-district transfers, and cyber schools. These policies differ in form, but share the same goals. First, they break the link between residential location and school assignment. When families are dissatisfied with the quality, safety, or services offered in their local school, they are empowered to pursue other options. Second, choice facilitates better matches between students and schools. With a wide variety of options, families can choose the school with the theme, size, curriculum, or philosophy best matches their needs or interests. Third, choice aims to be the “tide that lifts all boats,” creating a marketplace in which good schools thrive and bad schools improve or close.

Economists (like me) tend to be cautiously optimistic about the potential for school choice to improve educational outcomes. With respect to most goods and services, the marketplace does a fine job of fueling innovation, rewarding quality, and getting consumers what they like, want, and need (the recent financial crisis notwithstanding). Policymakers and parents wish the same for their schools, and few would disagree that families deserve a voice in where their children go to school.

But economists also understand that markets do not guarantee good outcomes for all. On the contrary, market competition systematically produces winners and losers: thriving firms and dazzling failures, highly-paid CEOs and the working poor, satisfied customers and the fleeced. Though tides may rise in the long run, many boats sink along the way. For most goods and services, this is a risk we are willing to take. But in education — our single most important pathway to personal and social prosperity — the risks associated with unfettered choice deserve closer scrutiny.

For example, education reformers embrace the idea of providing families information for choosing schools, encouraging new schools to enter, and “letting the market work.” But choosing a school can be a serious and complex task. In New York City, for example, incoming freshmen choose from nearly 700 high school programs on 360 sites. New schools open every year while others close their doors, creating a constantly shifting landscape. Students are encouraged to seek out quality schools, but school “quality” is hard enough for professionals to measure, let alone kids. As in any market, families with the knowledge, energy, and resources necessary to identify good schools will fare well, while those who do not will fall behind.

On the supply side, the entry of new players into the market will likely promote innovation and increase average quality in the long run. As in any market, however, quality may vary greatly, with a few stand-out performers and many failures. The empirical evidence on charter school effectiveness has already shown such a pattern. With children’s education on the line, the downside risk of failure is incredibly high.

If education is to benefit from the virtues of markets, policymakers must be prepared for the likely negative effects of market competition. Inequality in educational outcomes may rise, not fall, under expanded school choice. As niche markets form and students seek out schools tailored to their needs and interests, segregation by ability, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and aspirations may rise. Given what we know about how markets work, these effects are predictable. We should begin now.


Final note from Learning Matters: If interested in learning more about the charter school experiment in New Orleans, we invite you to watch this trailer for an upcoming project of ours:


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12 comments

I have to admit that I was looking to read through these pieces today hoping to find a way to really get lit up, to take issue, shake off the chill of finally getting snow in Eagle Mountain, UT. But the rational, reasonable expressions of all the writers, even those who may have issue with choice as it is presently constituted, just solidified my sense that there is more right with public education than there is wrong with it.

Starting with Andrew’s great paraphrasing of Twain, it is crucial we stop seeing education funding as something to be budgeted annually, but rather an investment for the future. Then to Richard’s point about what we invest in–maybe that is my point shoved into his argument about charter and vouchers having been disappointing when stacked up against magnet schools. I’d add that most charters seeing success really are very magnet-like in so many ways. Our challenge is that, regardless of what we call a school, targeted instruction and specialized delivery (loaded words probably) in a smaller setting almost always yield better results and make our social and financial investment worth it. Even as a charter proponent, I would love to see more magnet schools. But regardless of what we call a school, if the culture does not support student achievement and the enjoyment of achievement it will ultimately fail. I’m betting that Cassandra Hart knows there are no silver bullets from any aspect of education, vouchers included. I think her brief explanation of vouchers should be required reading for any proponent or opponent interested in facts as we know them. Michael’s quoting Howard Fuller got my attention and I was rewarded by seeing a hopeful definition for public education that too few of us comprehend or that we simply blind ourselves to, solely out of convenience. Douglas Harris’ point about so many different definitions of what constitutes a “good school” is why I have begged for years to get a working definition all parties can get their heads around. This plugged in nicely with Jane’s take on accountability and consistency–both key traits in the definition of “good” as well as critical to the success of public ed and choice options. And the final sentence of Greg’s piece is powerfully compelling and totally true.

If I were writing a single piece on education choice and accountability, these things would all find themselves in it. But the trick is not solely to talk or write about it all, but roll up our sleeves and do something about it. Many of these folks are as are many of us wherever in this nation we happen to be. But it has to become more a groundswell or else we will continue to limp along and have these same challenges 20 years from now. (Thanks everyone for your insights and to Learning Matters for getting it all in one place!)

I’m disappointed with the generally one-sided conversation presented here. I’m also shocked by Clint Bolick criticizing opponents of school choice for attacking the other side’s motives rather than their position, only to go on an attack THEIR motives in the exact same paragraph!

School choice is obviously a complicated issue, and the writers you’ve chosen have presented many of the nuances that are important to be aware of on the pro school choice side. Perhaps you will soon be presenting the important nuances from the other side?

Also - it would be nice to see more non-ivory tower people here.

I agree that this a one-sided conversation and one severely superficial in scope. whether charters are good or not for their students, one has to look at their impact on the system as a whole, and I see little evidence that even the academics quoted above, who seem eager to straddle the fence, to do any sort of real analysis.
academics are afraid to lose their big Gates grants?

Charters are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are a disruptive force — that is good if status quo is bad. In Washington, D.C. they have been helpful so far. Public schools here in D.C. are now getting on board with both school-level and teacher evaluations so we might be turning the corner.

Here’s what I don’t understand: we have quantifiable, undeniable evidence we spend too much on education (global comparison) and are failing an ungodly number of children with unpardonable drop out rates, embarrassing PISA scores, appalling NAEP scores, far too many filthy, dilapidated and unsafe schools yet the media demands supporters of school choice make the case for change!?! Why don’t media demand supporters of the “status quo” explain why they should be given another 4+ decades and countless more generations of our children while we all wait for them to “fix” education? Clearly those with the power to help our children do NOT have our children as their #1 priority. The time of this being an issue of pedagogy has long past. It is now a civil rights issue.

Unless we start requiring accountability of our principals and teachers, and insist upon the support of parents in reinforcing what is learned in the classroom, education is doomed regardless of its form. “Public” can be as broad and unlimited as the word implies. It should not be constrained by a single way of doing things. Think about it. Our country has been in the forefront of innovation in agriculture, manufacturing, science and technology. Why is it that in the most important requirement for societal progress, education, we have been trapped in the stone age? Why are we afraid to innovate education? Why is it that we can appreciate the importance of entrepreneurial innovation in so many fields, but dissuade it in updating the models for teaching our youth? Let us embrace new laboratories of educational change by endorsing the proliferation of new schools that challenge the old way of doing things. Let us be bold in our endeavors and not beholden to large and immobile bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s generation depends on our ability to become more efficient and consistent in imparting enough knowledge and skills to empower the workers of the 21st Century. To continue to ignore our deficiencies and cling to the practices of the past, doom us — and more importantly our children — to certain failure and the creation of a new and permanent underclass.

I found the remarks posted a Lot more stimulating than the articles themselves. When I read the credentials of the writers, I gained a better understanding as to why their remarks are bland and uninspiring, none of them are educators dealing with school-age children. Everyone who is concerned about education has an opinion as to what is wrong but few have any real in-depth suggestions as to what to do to change the direction of failing future children’s opportunities for quality education. Having spent over 20 years in education, in and out of classrooms, I see the problems differently from those who sit outside the school arena and “throw stones”. The remarks of the economist Sean P. Corcoran as he discussed education and schools from an economic standpoint is an example of how far the discussion can stray AWAY from the focal point, quality education for all students. Opening and closing charter schools; schools opening up as schools of choice without any history of success and marketing as choice without any reference to established success, does nothing to help establish quality education for all students. It takes at least 3-5 years to determine if a new facility or program actually is succeeding to educate their population. Charters and choice schools often exclude or fall short of educating All students because they do little to assist those with special needs, therefore they are only available for a specific population, when we need to address the needs of the entire population.
I appreciate the remarks of Clint Bolick because they express a concern for the children. However,the availability of money through vouchers and charters to me is similar to a shell game scam, moving the money around without any guarantee that where it’s going next will do a better job at delivering success than the last place the money was sent to. James Boutin states “Few parents are provided the necessary tools to make a sound judgement, particularly when the market for schools has created obscene marketing techniques in cities.” Opening and closing charter schools, moving money from one place to another is not the answer. Duplicating what works, implementing programs that establish a “no tolerance” zone towards bullying and bad behavior is schools, reclaiming schools as an institution of learning as opposed to a social gathering place is the answer. Jane Hannaway talks about how to ensure more success with charter schools, when the conversation should be about what to do about failing schools both charter as well as those part of public school systems. In my world, charters that are failing to perform are worse than the public schools because they are held to such a high regard as “the answer to the problem”. So, what Is the answer to this “problem”? Henry Mazurek says it with the remark that “Unless we start requiring accountability of our principals and teachers, and insist upon the support of parents in reinforcing what is learned in the classroom, education is doomed regardless of its form.” Parents Must be involved. Parents must read to their children in order to help them develop a substantial vocabulary prior to entering school. Parents must stop thinking that dropping the child off at the school is their only responsibility. Parents must take the time to communicate with teachers, attend parent-teacher conferences, make sure homework is completed and returned. Teaching their children should be a partnership with the school staff, not solely the staff’s responsibility. Parents are children’s first teacher and that teacher needs to be included and involved in each step of their child’s educational development.
When I read the remarks of James Boutin and found so much I agree with, I looked to see what institution he represented and found he is a public school teacher. And that is my final conclusion, often not enough credence is made to the remarks, concerns and experiences of the classroom teacher. The people who wrote these articles have little to no experience with the population being discussed.I wouldn’t go to an accountant to discuss my legal concerns, and we should stop looking to politicians and think tanks to come up with solutions to the problems of public education.

Center for School Change has found that families love the option of being able to have youngsters take college level courses (including on college campuses) while still in high school). http://www.centerforschoolchange.org

1. If the government does not offer choices among public schools, then only affluent families will have choices. Not very democratic.
2. Among the strongest supporters of some forms of school choice are teachers who have been allowed to create new kinds of schools.
3. One of the most elitist and anti-democratic forms of public school choice are the magnet schools - a major federal study found the vast majority have explicit entrance tests. I’m a huge opponent of allowing public schools of any kind, k-12, to screen out students.

Ohio has had a long and inglorious history with Charter Schools and vouchers, best explained here: http://innovationohio.org/blog/whose-choice-an-excellent-backgrounder-on-ohios-school-choice-movement

As a former state legislator, I can attest to the incredible power the idea of parental choice has, especially for parents who believe their children have been lost in the public school system. However, I also understand that sometimes parents don’t make the best choices; I have known of parents who tell their kids they don’t have to read, for example. So it’s a tough balance.

The idea behind Charter Schools makes a lot of inherent sense to me: create incubators of innovation and try to upscale what works for the larger system as a whole. Working like that, I think Charters can really help drive a lot of innovation in our educational system.

However, in Ohio, that relationship is extremely rare because of the incredibly divisive way in which Charters and Vouchers were brought to this state. They are seen as competitive with rather than partners with traditional public education. And that’s too bad. Ask an Ohio Superintendent or Principal when’s the last time they used a technique from a Charter School in their curriculum. I bet they’d all say, “Never.”

The way these schools are funded in Ohio, the state almost always pays more per pupil for a kid to go to a Charter or take a Voucher than they would have for the kid to stay in the traditional setting. That means districts have to make up for these losses with higher property taxes, which taxpayers will not pass anymore in our state. This has made for quite a War between the sides.

The few truly successful Charter Schools in this state (only about two dozen of the nearly 300 Ohio Charter Schools would rank in the top half of all school districts on the state’s Performance Index Score) are doing extremely innovative curriculm or specialize, either in the Arts or Career Tech or something else.

What we need to do is find out the processes which brought about these successful Charter Schools and reproduce those processes in each community. That way, if they are needed in a community, they are community specific and have a much better chance of succeeding. Dropping a Charter that works in another community or state into another community or state will have a much lower rate of success.

In short, I’m not against the idea of Charter Schools. I am against the way they are funded as competitors with traditional school districts. They should be partners with districts, not enemies.

As for vouchers, there is no evidence they lead to better student outcomes in Ohio yet. There is plenty that they lead to worse local district budgets, and that’s not good for the people of Ohio.

A recent bill in the Ohio House (HB 136) would have allowed Vouchers to be used anywhere in the state. That is a dangerous departure from the Founding Fathers’ vision in the Land Ordinance of 1785 of the heart of every township being set aside for public common schools.

Though it is interesting that even though the Governor and Legislature more than doubled the number of Vouchers in the last budget bill, fewer kids took them this school year than last school year. For the first time in the history of ohio’s Voucher program, less state money is being funneled to them this year than last.

So maybe parents are pretty happy with the public schools after all? Maybe that’s the best lesson to be learned from Ohio’s dramatic experience with these alternative educational opportunities.

Sorry folks in Ohio are not learning from eachother. Just last Saturday, more than 200 Minneapolis/St.Paul educators from district and charter public schools met to share ideas. Convened by the African American Leadership Forum, General Mills and the Univ of Mn, the evaluations were very positive.

For the last 4 years, we have had a year-long leadership academy involving district and charter educators. Again, it can happen.

Although I, personally, don’t accept the premise that competition brings out the best in everybody/everything (which is the fundamental assumption about the public value of charters and vouchers), I’m willing to accept the possibility that they could, in a some sense, induce some helpful competition. However in practice, all too often charters and vouchers are pretexts for other agendas: defunding public schools, attacking teachers unions, funneling public money into for-profit ventures with little return to public investors, and so on.

If there were a clear way to dissociate the corrupt elements from the possible benefits, I’d be a lot less troubled by the whole concept. But right now, the corrupt elements are the ones winning the battle, and I can’t support any of it until that gets cleared up.

Surveys over the past 25 years show that when parents are asked their opinion of the public school that their child attends, roughly 85% say that they are happy or very happy with the quality of education it provides.

However, when those same people are asked for their opinion on American education in general, about 85% of that same group will say they disapprove.

It’s a strange disconnect. But it comes from the relentless, but well funded effort on the part of people who, for reasons both ideological and financial, are committed to phasing out public education and replacing it with the chimera of “consumer choice”—as if your child’s education can be compared with buying a new pair of shoes at the mall.

Charters, vouchers and the other deceptive elements that go with them, have lost my trust and my confidence. I once, naively, supported them.

It was only after my son entered Kindergarten 2 years ago that I began reading about this “Billionaires Agenda” and the many private, for-profit interests that are just salivating at the thought of getting their hands on the dollars we raised to educate our children.

The same mentality—one that sees public education as “Competition” and “Profitability” instead of “Community” and “Equal Opportunity”—and in many cases, the same people, that brought the entire economy to its knees in 2008, is behind this effort to phase out the very idea of public schools. They will publicly deny it, but it’s clear from my private conversations—and in reading much of what they’ve written—that they just despise the entire idea of a community working together in the interests of their children, in a non-profit setting.

And, the “added bonus” for these privatization zealots, is they can also destroy the teachers unions, and turn future teachers into the equivalent of Walmart workers; poorly trained, poorly paid, few if any benefits, and terrified of being let go, at any time, for any reason or no reason, with absolutely no recourse.

As a parent, I want my child taught by a well-educated, respected, confident and financially secure teacher. I don’t want someone who feels the need to take a job on the weekends or in the evening, working at Starbucks, just to make ends meet. The “reformers” don’t seem to understand this. And maybe that’s because their real agenda has zero to do with kids, parents or teachers. It’s all about “the investors” and ROI.




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