Posts tagged with: school choice

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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With Afghanistan, health care, and economic distress devouring the attention of media, politicians, and the electorate, school choice may seem like yesterday’s public policy headline. Yet the problems in America’s education system remain. In fact, plummeting tax revenue highlights the necessity of increasing public school efficiency, while unemployment and falling household incomes heighten the recruitment challenges facing tuition-funded private schools.

And quietly, the movement for school choice—improving education by returning power to parents—continues to make progress. This week, news from Los Angeles, demonstrating the bipartisan, non-sectarian potential of competition in education: More schools will be handed over to Green Dot, a charter school operator with documented success in improving outcomes for the district’s struggling students.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I offer a peek at my forthcoming monograph, Catholic Education and the Promise of School Choice, number 15 in the Christian Social Thought Series:

The United States justifiably celebrates its pluralism. The mandate to find unity in diversity—e pluribus unum—is predicated not on the premise that all peculiarities of creed or color must be washed away; instead, it insists that all such cultural and social differences must be respected. Part and parcel of this freedom is the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Like all rights, this one carries with it a duty: to prepare the child adequately for participation in society by being attentive to technical and life skills as well as moral formation.

Yet, this right has been imperfectly recognized for some time. Pursuing the goal of universal education, a worthy end in itself, nineteenth-century reformers gradually concentrated in city, state, and national governments the funding and control of what had been a predominantly non-governmental, disparate, and radically local regime of education. Immediately, the move toward unitary systems fueled conflict over a neuralgic point of America’s pluralist experiment: Protestant-Catholic relations. Controversy over schooling was one of the combustible ingredients leading to explosions of violence in cities such as Philadelphia and New York during the 1830s and 1840s.

A modus vivendi was reached when Catholics determined to build their own parochial system. The Supreme Court guaranteed the legality of the Catholic parochial system in its 1925 Pierce decision, and soon Catholics in the United States would build the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels.

Meanwhile, battles over public school curricula continued, as constituencies of many varieties perceived that what they viewed as an appropriate education for their children was not served by a public system that inexorably drifted toward a lowest-common-denominator form of education. Some religious groups such as Lutherans and Dutch Reformed began or maintained their own schools, and parents seeking social status or demanding rigorous standards enrolled their children in private academies.

A Hybrid System

Thus, the pluralist ideal survived but in a deformed shape. The right of parents to direct their children’s education was recognized in theory, but in practice every citizen was compelled to pay for the government school system. The result was an arrangement unjust at its core. Parents devoted to a particular form of education for religious or other reasons might choose to sacrifice other goods to fund their children’s education outside of the government system. For wealthy families, the choice might come easily; for most, the decision was difficult. The incentive to participate in the government system was strong, and genuine freedom in education remained an elusive ideal.

We have thus come to the present, a hybrid system of private schools increasingly off-limits to the working and even middle classes and state schools plagued by inefficiencies, inequities, and in some cases, abject failure. By no means does this generalization denigrate the good work that thousands of educators in both private and public systems do every day. Some religious schools strive ardently to keep open the prospect of a first-rate education for students of poor parents and challenging backgrounds. Some public schools provide outstanding academic and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Yet, too many students are, despite political rhetoric and flawed legislation, “left behind.”

Conscientious parents naturally assert their freedom whenever given the opportunity. School district choice among public systems is extremely popular. Private school spots available through vouchers in locales such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have been grasped as quickly as they appear. Charter schools have exhibited some widely publicized hazards, but on the whole they have been successful, an affordable alternative to traditional public schools. Finally, an increasing number of parents have opted out of conventional educational models altogether: Some two million students were homeschooled in 2008.

Positive developments in the political and legal culture of education have permitted these exercises of liberty, resulting in tremendous gains in parent satisfaction, cost efficiency, and most importantly, student achievement. Still, old ways of thinking, archaic prejudices, and special interests remain formidable obstacles on the path to further progress. To encourage continued improvements in education—in whichever setting that may occur—parents must be granted greater control over and responsibility for their schooling choices. At its root, this means breaking the stranglehold on education dollars that government systems currently enjoy. It means returning control of that money to parents.

Parents In Control

Obviously Catholic and other private schools stand to gain from such reform, but proposing it is far from special pleading. The appeal and urgency of school choice lies precisely in its implications for the common good of all children—regardless of religious persuasion or socio-economic status. Indeed, the exact outcome of extending educational freedom is hard to predict: that is the nature of freedom. What is certain is that the worst elements of the current state-run systems would not be tolerated, for no parent wants her child to fail.

Returning financial control to parents sets in motion a series of favorable developments: Parents demand excellence of the schools; administrators demand excellence of the teachers; students and teachers alike thrive on the fertilizer of high expectations. The potential of parental responsibility and educational choice has already been demonstrated; it remains to enshrine these concepts in the nation’s culture and law.

Some skeptical observers may suspect that school choice is but a stalking horse for public funding of religious institutions. They may guess that tax breaks for tuition, for example, are intended primarily or even exclusively to enhance the bottom line of private schools. In a climate of public schooling challenges, when large numbers of students are failing to achieve basic competency, they wonder, should we not focus our resources on public schools?

Public education is, indeed, facing its own crisis, one differing in some ways from that confronting Catholic education. More than 25 percent of public school students fail to graduate high school, but this figure masks a dramatic socio-economic divergence: The dropout rate for poor students is ten times that of wealthier students. Public schooling in the United States is thus highly stratified. Good districts enjoy healthy levels of funding through property taxes, while the tax base of poor districts leads to lower levels for the most challenging student populations. Yet, funding has become the focus of accusations of inequity to the detriment of the debate over improving public education. The per capita spending per student, even in poor districts, far exceeds the per capita spending at Catholic schools, yet Catholic schools enjoy better outcomes on a range of indicators.

Spurring Reform

There are a number of factors contributing to this relative inefficiency in the public system. State and federal regulations on everything from classroom safety to teacher qualifications, while well intended, are excessive and do not adequately permit for local variation or administrative judgment. Teacher unions secure pay scales higher than a market rate (and significantly higher than most private schools). Lacking a rational system of incentives for cutting costs, waste is endemic in many public schools.

Like Catholic schools, public education has been a highly successful means of enabling Americans of every socio-economic and ethnic background to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to be productive citizens. Yet, if American education is to succeed for future generations of its students, reform and improvement are necessary. In too many cases, public schools have too little to show for the resources that they absorb.

In this context, school choice represents a promising method for spurring improvement. Most parents desire solid education for their children in a safe and supportive environment. Too many public schools do not provide such an environment. Available evidence suggests that competition among individual schools and among districts encourages academic improvement. Despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, it is not true that school choice measures drain public schools of resources. Implementation of choice, because of the positive incentives it frames, results in a more efficient allocation of available educational resources, benefiting all students.

Competition has in some circles accumulated negative connotations. It is associated with a cutthroat or winner-takes-all mentality. Yet, there is a more benign understanding of competition that recognizes it as a useful motivation in human endeavor. Countless teachers and institutions throughout the history of schooling have recognized its potential, staging various kinds of contests ranging from quiz bowls to science fairs to academic honor rolls. Conducted in the proper spirit, these contests are not harmful, elevating those who perform well at the expense of those who do not. Instead, they encourage all students to strive for excellence, recognizing that while not all will attain it, all will benefit from the exercise. Our educational systems would do well to restore this sense of competition to the educational enterprise as a whole. School choice is one reform that can contribute to this end.

Genuine Diversity

A final mark in favor of school choice is that it respects the pluralism inherent in contemporary culture. Diversity raises understandable concerns about assimilation and the creation of a common culture adequate to restrain the potentially damaging centrifugal forces of ethnic and religious tensions. Yet, fear of difference goes too far when it demands uniformity, and nowhere is enforcement of such uniformity as tempting or as easily accomplished as in government-managed primary and secondary education.

In light of this, the proliferation of genuine diversity in education that would almost certainly result from a vigorous implementation of school choice would better honor the rightful autonomy of individuals and families. Devoutly religious parents would not be forced to choose between an education that integrates their theological views but at the cost of painful financial sacrifice and a free school that undermines or at least fails to buttress the principles that they hold dear. Even with respect to purely academic pursuits, diversity could be honored. While a genuine education must cover certain basic fields, students might legitimately choose schools with particular strength in various areas such as science, visual arts, or literature.

The benefits of school choice are many, which should not be surprising. When parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s education, both parents and students begin to view education in a different light. Shifting parents and children from a position of dependency on government to a position of empowerment promotes a vision of persons as participants in society, rather than observers or dependents.

There will, of course, be parents who neglect their responsibilities. There will always be roles for charitable institutions and governments to ensure that everything possible is done to given children of negligent parents the opportunity to excel. This is hardly a strike against school choice: Even now the parental background of students plays a major if not decisive role in the potential for successful completion of students’ educational regimen. Policy should be formulated to support good parents and encourage mediocre ones; it should not be designed under the assumption that all parents are deficient.

School choice, then, far from being a concession to special interests, is a plan for reforming troubled schools, rewarding excellent schools, and empowering parents and students to take responsibility for seeking and attaining the education they deem necessary and appropriate for participation in a contemporary world. It is good for individuals, and it is good for society.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Monday, March 9, 2009
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Washington, D.C., has long been a focal point of debates about vouchers and other forms of school choice–partly because the public schools there are so notoriously bad that a working majority of politicians and parents are open to experiments that might improve them.

Two recent articles highlight interesting developments. First, Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal challenges President Obama to fight congressional action that might terminate the D.C. scholarship program (which currently permits some students to attend private schools with assistance from public money).

McGurn describes “perhaps the most odious of double standards in American life today”:

the way some of our loudest champions of public education vote to keep other people’s children — mostly inner-city blacks and Latinos — trapped in schools where they’d never let their own kids set foot.

Coincidentally, the New York Times looks at the situation at one of the recently Catholic-turned-charter elementaries in the Archdiocese of Washington. This phenomenon is likely to grow more common as big-city Catholic school systems continue to struggle financially. Reporter Javier Hernandez aptly captures both the attractions and the drawbacks of such arrangements: the schools stays open, offering a decent alternative to the conventional public school, but there’s no longer any prayer.

Among the big questions remaining is this: With the specifically Catholic identity of the school no longer in place, how long will the “culture” and the “values” that distinguish it persist?

I like to think of J. Gresham Machen as the American Presbyterian Chesterton — though he is sometimes more explicit in his societal commentary than his British Catholic counterpart. In my Sunday reading, I keep coming across interesting lines from his selected shorter writings (edited by D.G. Hart) that call to mind current campaign rhetoric, especially from senators Obama and Clinton, about the need for expanded or universal preschool and state-subsidized education in general. Here are a few quotes from Machen’s 1933 address titled, “The Necessity of the Christian School”:

…The tyranny of the scientific expert is the most crushing tyranny of all. That tyranny is being exercised most effectively in the field of education. A monopolistic system of education controlled by the state is far more efficient in crushing our liberty than the cruder weapons of fire and sword. Against this monooply of education by the state the Christian school brings a salutary protest; it contends for the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with the dictates of their conscience and not in the manner prescribed by the state.

Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of federal aid to the schools of this country; for federal aid in the long run inevitably means federal control, and federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great.

Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest….The only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.

A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But…the bearing of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth, even in the sphere of mathematics, seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian….True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life — those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school.

Blog author: jmorse
Sunday, December 3, 2006
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If we are ever going to make progress in reforming the education system, we have to find ways to appeal to at least some members of the education profession. Often, teachers, administrators and school boards have distinct strategies. If we can appeal to a subset of educators, we have a better chance of success. Put another way, no school reform can possibly succeed, without the support of at least some members of the education establishment.

Here is a story that made my blood boil, as a parent. But it illustrates the point that there may be possibilities for reforms that appeal to at least some educators.

Bong Hits for Jesus was written on the banner produced by a high school student in Alaska. He held it up for the TV cameras when the Olympic Torch passed by. His principal saw the banner, ripped it down and suspended the student for ten days. As parent and an educator and a person of common sense, I applaud the principal for disciplining this kid. Naturally, a lawsuit happened:

(The student) was off school property when he hoisted the banner but was suspended for violating school policy by promoting illegal substances at a school-sanctioned event.

The school board upheld the suspension, and a federal judge initially dismissed Frederick’s lawsuit. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the banner was vague and nonsensical, and that Frederick’s civil rights had been violated….

The appeals court said even if the banner could be construed as a positive message about marijuana use, the school could not punish or censor a student’s speech just because it promotes a social message contrary to one the school favors.

And for her trouble, the principal, Deborah Morse, (no relation) may end up facing fines.

The court is expected to hear arguments in the case in late February. In addition to the First Amendment issue, the court also will consider whether Morse can be held personally liable for monetary damages.

Morse, now the district’s coordinator of facilities planning, said, “I think it’s important for school administrators all across the country to have some guidance in how to enforce school rules at school activities without risking liability.”

So here is what some smart conservative advocate of school reform should suggest: come up with legislation giving immunity to school administrators from lawsuits. In any other profession, the professionals are given the room to make judgments and use their discretion. In education, professionals have the courts breathing down their necks, second-guessing their decisions and generally interfering with their ability to do their jobs.
This kid has no civil right to advocate drug use. A 10 day Suspension is not that big of a deal. Kids need to have limits set on their behavior. This adult was trying to do her job.

If conservatives could come up with a legal strategy to protect school boards and administrators from these frivolous lawsuits, it would be VERY attractive to that group of education professionals.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

In the wake of the November elections, with politicians promising less partisan bickering, a perfect opportunity presents itself for real cooperation: educational choice. Kevin Schmiesing looks at the state initiatives that have already empowered “poor and middle class parents to send their children to schools that they believe will best serve their educational goals.”

Read the commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, June 22, 2006
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In today’s OpinionJournal Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, gives an overview of the state-by-state successes of school choice advocates. One of Bolick’s important observations is that the move for increased choice and competition in education is increasingly becoming bi-partisan.

Politicians who have been attached to the education establishment are beginning to realize that school choice is one of the most hopeful options available for those who are the neediest and the poorest. Those who are wealthy have always had a measure of choice, because they can generally afford the extra cost of private school tuition. It is those who cannot afford this extra cost that really have little in the way of choices.

Shouldn’t the poor also be able to have their child receive a quality and even religious education if they so choose?

HT: WorldMagBlog

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
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Rep. Vito Fossella (R-NY13) endorses federal tuition tax credits for K-12 education at NRO, “An A+ Choice.”

Says Fosella: “Here’s how it would work: Families would be permitted to take a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their tax liability for non-public-school-tuition expenses. For example, a taxpayer with a liability of $10,000 and a tax credit of $4,500 would be required to pay only $5,500 in taxes. Simply, it allows families to keep more of their money to spend on their children’s education.”

Blog author: mvandermaas
Monday, January 9, 2006
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Monopoly #1: I was somewhat shocked the other day when I heard a strong critique of the much-vaunted Canadian national health care system on NPR. I wasn’t dreaming – here’s the link to prove it. The report notes that “after 50 years, the Medicare dream has turned nightmare for many” – something that many advocates for socialized health care in the US would do well to take note of. It also takes note of the recent precedent-setting court decision in Quebec which gives residents who are on waiting lists that jeopardize their health the right to opt out of the public system. (You can listen to the report in Real Audio format by clicking here; previous posts on the topic here, here, and here.) Government health care in Canada seems to be teetering on the brink.

One facing a judicial red light; the other, green.

Monopoly #2: The same can not be said for the governmental education monopoly in Florida. Last Thursday, the state Supreme Court struck down Florida’s statewide voucher system.

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public education.

This is unfortunate, for the simple reason that the introduction of vouchers has been an effective education reform measure in Florida. The Wall Street Journal noted the positive effects of the program back in June:

The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida’s academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.

Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.

Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.

The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida’s public schools now earn “A” grades, while a similar percentage scored “C’s” when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.

Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else.

And so we revert to the status quo. Sadly, the ones most harmed by the status quo are the ones most in need of the reforms that school choice would bring – the poor.

My predictions: As Canada introduces more market oriented solutions to its health care problems, the quality of care that Canadians recieve will rise and fewer Canadians will have to head south of the border to obtain it; and until American public schools face genuine competition, the quality of the education they provide (especially in inner city and poor areas) will increase negligibly if at all. (more…)