The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says that 58% of people don’t know much about charter schools. Even more, 66%, know little or nothing about private school vouchers. Nevertheless, 47% favor expanding charters and 43% would expand vouchers. Media headlines say most Americans support choice, but this is misleading. Most Americans either are opposed or have no opinion. The report found that four in ten believed that the country in general would benefit from more choice.
The poll has value. It made me think. See what you think!
The task ahead is to educate the public about the impact of choice on communities. Unthinking growth in choice destroys thriving schools by dividing resources. Competitive admission and selective dismissal policies promote a ‘have and have not’ culture. Increased racial and economic segregation destroys a sense of community. The words ‘divide and conquer’ leap to mind. What are the drivers for such a strategy? Here’s one narrative:
- Reduce the cost of government. Education is generally the second largest category in state budgets and is too expensive.
- Public schools must change as jobs disappear. The future requires more students to have better critical thinking and problem solving skills. Schools are slow to respond.
- Competition results in increased quality. Choice drives bureaucratic traditional public schools to improve.
There is a different narrative emerging as people become aware of the costs of choice. I call it the ‘Not all Choices are Good Choices” story:
- Cheaper schools are not better schools. Lower state budgets results in the ‘you get what you pay for’ scenarios. Schools that succeed, whether charter, public, or private, garner substantial outside funding. Thus, ‘the rich get richer’. Even charter chains like KIPP, that serve low income areas, get substantial funding beyond the per student allocations all schools receive. For example, in Florida’s budget there is a special provision to give the two KIPP schools in Jacksonville an extra one million dollars.
- Unfettered choice is not improvement. As the number of options for schools increase, costs increase. New schools are opened; new administrators are hired. More buildings must be maintained with fewer dollars. More schools serve the same number of students. What individual schools can afford declines. Pressure to do more with less drives many teachers away. The schools themselves become more segregated racially and socio-economically as they strive for niche markets. Florida has already been cited by the U.S. Department of Education for its school imbalance.
- Quality is sacrificed to inappropriate accountability. The testing and accountability measures that rank students, teachers and schools drives curricula in the wrong direction. Teaching to the test does not promote the desired critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather, reading and math skills are the indicators of improvement. If students can learn more complex basic skills sooner and faster, it is assumed, education must be better. Not so. Solving quadratic equations in middle school does not help those children learn to use them in real world applications.
Yes, all students need to be appropriately challenged. They must know what the world ‘out there’ requires of them and understand they can find their place. They need indicators to gauge their strengths and weaknesses as they move through curriculum.
We are in a world of claims and counter claims about how to achieve this goal. Policy leaders are looking for simple solutions to complex problems. We need a vision for what a quality education for all students is. What we have now is an outcome measure mentality i.e. high test scores must mean good schools. What if we are measuring the wrong thing? What makes a good school? It has to be more than a school whose students come from high income families. It has to be a school that helps all children have a chance to succeed. What does that take? Are we willing to make the right choices to succeed?