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School Choice – Now More Than Ever

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School Choice – Now More Than Ever


April 5, 2008; Page A8

This week's revelation that 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities have high school graduation rates below 50% surely saddened many. But it surprised few people attuned to the state of U.S. public education. Proponents of education choice have long believed that dropout rates fall when families can pick the schools best suited for their children.

So news that Sol Stern, a veteran advocate of school choice, is having second thoughts about the ability of market forces to improve education outcomes is noteworthy. Mr. Stern explains his change of heart in the current issue of the indispensable City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Manhattan Institute. And his revised views on the school choice movement warrant a response.

Inside of two decades, charter school enrollment in the U.S. has climbed to 1.1 million from zero. Two tiny voucher programs in Maine and Vermont blossomed into 21 programs in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Tuition tax credits, once puny and rare, are now sizeable and commonplace. The idea that teacher pay should be based on performance, not just seniority, is gaining ground. Not bad for a small band of education reformers facing skepticism from the liberal media and outright hostility from well-funded, politically connected heavies like the National Education Association.

So I was surprised to see these impressive school choice gains diminished by Mr. Stern, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute who has spent so many years chronicling them.

Mr. Stern does allow that "the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged," liberating low-income families from failing schools. But he says that social-change movements need to be attentive to "facts on the ground" and that recent developments "suggest that markets in education may not be a panacea – and that we should reexamine the direction of school reform."

As an example, Mr. Stern cites the Milwaukee voucher program. "Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tied to any urban school district in the country, Milwaukee's public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates," he writes. "Most voucher students are still benefitting, true; but no 'Milwaukee miracle,' no transformation of the public schools has taken place."

Seeking panaceas and miracles is setting the bar for success unreasonably high. The most immediate goal of market-oriented reformers is to offer respite to poor families with kids in the worst schools. And Mr. Stern acknowledges that those students with access to vouchers and charters are in a much better situation than they would be otherwise.

His larger argument is that choice has been ineffective in improving surrounding public school systems, but that is a dubious conclusion at best. No fewer than four authoritative studies of Milwaukee's voucher program exist, the most recent published last year by Martin Carnoy of Stanford University. While none of the Milwaukee studies have found huge improvements from the existence of a voucher program, all concluded that public schools are responding to the competitive pressure and do better.

Similarly, studies of Florida's A+ program, which gives students in chronically failing public schools a voucher to attend a private school, found that the threat of losing students caused public schools to improve performance on the state assessment test. There are four such studies available, and all show a positive competitive response from the public school system.

Other research has assessed how competition from charter schools affects traditional public schools. The University of Washington's National Charter School Research Project identified 12 such surveys. Seven showed significant positive effects from competition; three showed no effect; and two showed negative effects. Once again a preponderance of the evidence suggests that expanded choice and competition improve educational outcomes.

In Mr. Stern's view, education reformers would do better to de-emphasize choice and focus instead on improving curriculums and teacher quality. The reality is that the former fuels the latter. Researchers at the Urban Institute, by no means a bastion of conservatives, recently collected information on how public schools respond to competitive pressure. It turns out that one response is to put in place instructional reforms, including more rigorous standards. In other words, instructional reform is a product of competitive pressure and is less likely to occur in the absence of school choice.

It's also worth noting that public school choice has always existed in the form of residential choice. The problem is that not all families have the means to move into the neighborhoods with better schools. One goal of reformers is to make choice more equitable. The fact that vouchers and charters have been unable to completely transform the system inside of two decades does not mean public education is immune to market forces. School choice is clearly making a difference for the better, which justifies expanding it, not abandoning it.

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"Similarly, studies of Florida's A+ program, which gives students in chronically failing public schools a voucher to attend a private school, found that the threat of losing students caused public schools to improve performance on the state assessment test. There are four such studies available, and all show a positive competitive response from the public school system."

Since I am very familiar with the Florida A+ plan I would like to comment on this portion of the article. I realize that they say four studies have shown a "positive competitive response" from public schools to school choice. They say that the threat of losing students is the driving force behind improved performance on state tests. As many of you know, surveys and studies can be slanted such that any desired outcome can be achieved. I have worked in Florida public elementary schools for the past 33 years. My entire career has been in low socio-economic schools. I mention this because these are the "low performing" schools of which articles such as this speak. Florida has had it's school grading system for over ten years now and yes, the schools have made improvement on the tests required for this program. (And I will state here that I think the idea of accountability is a good thing.) The school where I have worked for the past 17 years has come from a D at the beginning to an A year before last. Did the teachers work their behinds off to get the children to this level? Yes. Did they do some of what they did because of the test? You bet. Did they ever do it because they thought they might lose students to another school? Not ever. The competition that is there is with ourselves to do better every year, not with the other schools in the district. Here's a little story: The year that our score reached an A we were consequently open to any student in a "failing" school and the district was required to provide them with transportation, a physical and monetary nightmare in and of itself. But I digress. Were the schools from whom we gained over 100 children (causing our population to increase by 33% over one summer, a total nightmare) upset to lose these students? Not that you would notice. In fact what the teachers at my school noticed was that the teachers from the other schools thanked them every time they saw them for taking the most difficult children off their hands. Public schools do not compete with each other for students. They compete with themselves to do better against mounting odds of success. And now I will hop off my soapbox and wait for the rocks to be thrown.

And as a little aside....in case anyone out there anywhere can't figure this out: The reason private schools are able to do so well is not that they are better at educating students. They are neither any better or any worse. The reason they are able to do so well is that they are able to choose their students and ask anyone to leave who does not make the grade in either achievement or behavior.

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what on earth are we supposed to do to fix this education "crisis"?!

answer: more money :rolleyes:

educrats can never have enough money. education has become the biggest bottomless pit in this country.

amount of funds spent on education in other countries is laughable compared to ours, yet our grades are average at best.

the education system is now more geared as a babysitting establishment and teachers are expected to maintain order without the ability to discipline. Teachers might as well enter a classroom with their hands tied behind their backs.

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