Author Archive | Peter H. Hanley

With parental school choice, what are we Democrats afraid of?

Education’s parental choice is down to the heart of the matter in Florida. Will it remain a program at the margins? Or will the growing reality of empowering parents actually transform education over the coming years into a system that respond to the needs and desires of society and its families? Into a true public education system?

These scholarship students  joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

These scholarship students joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

In such a structure, the traditional public schools exist as one delivery method among several – charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, virtual schools, and possibly others to be created. But they are no longer the “public education system” that must be preserved at all costs and to the detriment of the others. Unfortunately, some Democratic lawmakers must still be persuaded.

Look no further than last week’s debate in the House Finance & Taxation Subcommittee, where representatives voted 11-7 along party lines in favor of a bill to strengthen and expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog with the American Center for School Choice.)

This program will continue to save the state money even after its expansion. It has a multi-year record of academic improvement, documented by an independent analysis. Yet it was bombarded with arguments rooted in doubts and fears rather than rationality or concern for children. Can those of us who are Democrats look at a cost-saving program that is successfully serving tens of thousands of low-income families, with tens of thousands more asking for a chance to participate, and really say, “You are asking for too much too soon”?

One of the most often heard views is no further funding should go to tax credit scholarships until “public education is fully funded.” First, this unicorn chase is a beautiful, yet mythical fairy tale. Nothing is “fully funded,” not our police force, our electric grid, our sewer system, our public transportation system, or our national defense. This is an excuse, if accepted, for doing nothing except plowing money endlessly into the status quo. Second, it is akin to telling your younger child, “No more Christmas presents until your big brother’s wish list is completely fulfilled.” Continue Reading →

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Peter Hanley: Wishing for a realistic view of testing

Editor’s note: Peter Hanley is executive director of the American Center for School Choice.

Hanley

Hanley

I wish we could have a more sophisticated, more realistic discussion of testing in our education reform debate. We do not yet have testing right, but the noise, much of it irrelevant to constructive dialogue, is making it difficult to determine if we are making much progress.

For all the imperfections of No Child Left Behind, the evidence seems clear that focusing even imperfectly on achievement and academic outcomes, as well as highlighting key subgroup performance, made a difference. Testing was clearly a key part of NCLB and plenty of room for legitimate debate exists about the amount and use of those tests. But the ongoing campaigns to nearly abandon testing, especially standardized testing, seem an overreaction and ill-advised.2013WISHLISTFINAL

The progress could have been greater. We could have been smarter and not allowed politics to put so many states in a race to dumb down the definition of “proficiency” so they could appear academically stronger than they were. The Fordham Foundation still rates only 10 states with history standards at an “A” or “B” level. Most of the science standards are mediocre to poor. The English/language arts standards improved little between 2005 and 2010. So in much of the country, even assuming the tests were aligned to the standards, we were starting with many defects built into the assessment system. If the standards did not ask for much critical thinking, problem solving, or teamwork skills, testing for them was highly problematic from the start. Yet this fundamental flaw is seldom a factor in any conversation about testing.

Nevertheless, the system broke through some stagnation despite NCLB’s shortcomings. Installing a testing and accountability system, however flawed, played a significant part. After treading water or deteriorating for 30 years, the high school graduation rate improved between 2000-10, even for African-Americans and Hispanics. To be sure, we are not anywhere close to where we need to be, but we got better. The focus on reading and math, on testing and then publishing the results, seems likely to have contributed to materially higher NAEP scores in the 2000 decade than over the previous period of the late 1980’s and 90’s. The result: greater numbers of better prepared freshmen entering high school, in turn leading to higher percentages of them graduating. This increase occurred even though 70 percent of high school students by 2010-11 had to pass some sort of exit exam to receive a diploma.

For all the continuous complaining about “teaching to the test,” where the standards were high and the tests were aligned, that did not seem to be a bad thing. In California, with which I am most familiar and whose standards are Fordham-rated at mostly the “A” level, academic progress has been steady. In 2013, the majority of students were “proficient” in math, English and science compared with one-third 10 years earlier. Unquestionably, many issues still remain in California – performance of subgroups, especially Latino students, and performance at the high school level, which is much lower than at the elementary level, to name just two of the most worrisome. But until California put in place its own stricter accountability system in 1999, tied heavily to testing and then coupled with NCLB, education outcomes had deteriorated markedly. Continue Reading →

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Parental choice would honor the Dream

Hanley

Hanley

Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s Dream speech.

It was January 18th, the Saturday of the MLK weekend in 1997, when I printed out the “I Have a Dream” speech. I’m not completely sure why, except that I was transitioning in my life from international business to education reform. The powerful language and ideas King conveyed, especially the notion that we had defaulted on our promissory note, captured me then and have stayed with me. The speech has been in my briefcase ever since. Multiple times each year, I pull it out when I need to refresh my memory as to why I remain engaged in what is often such an arduous struggle.

By now, I hope, people are familiar with the dismal stats. Our schools remain mostly separate and unequal. Schools that enroll 90 percent or more non-white students spend $733 less per pupil per year than schools that enroll 90 percent or more white students. That’s enough to pay the salary of 12 additional new teachers or nine veteran teachers in an average high-minority school with 600 students. Almost 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend those high minority schools, whereas the average white student is in a school that’s 77 percent white. Whites now constitute only 52 percent of K-12 demographics.MLK snipped

Meanwhile, only 19 percent of Hispanic 4th graders and 16 percent of black 4th graders scored proficient or above on the 2011 NAEP reading exam. About half of Hispanic and black students were “below basic,” the lowest category. Even our best students often leave the K-12 system unprepared, as best evidenced by a 60 percent remediation rate in the first year of college and large numbers of dropouts.

Although progress has been made, America remains in default on its promise of access to a high quality educational experience for all. In the words of Dr. King, we are addicted to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” and mired in a “quicksand of racial (as well as class) injustice.” Powerful adult interest groups continue to benefit. That part is analogous to the civil rights struggle of the 50’s and 60’s, though thankfully so far without the snarling dogs, fire hoses and bullets. My frustration with the pace is that the vision of justice, of what is right and what is possible, is so clear. We see hundreds of charter schools, private schools and traditional public schools achieving at high levels with children of all classes and ethnicities. When we know better, as we do, we should do better. But mostly we do not.

Parental school choice alone is no panacea. Standards need to be raised; teacher recruitment, preparation, training, evaluation, and compensation systems dramatically restructured; and technology integrated to improve efficiency. But Dr. King would likely look askance at using school district attendance boundaries to corral families the way we do cattle, allowing them in and out only when it pleases the owner. This system is inherently unjust, immoral, and even evil when it condemns families to poor performing schools year after year, generation after generation. It forcibly segregates us from one another. Without choice, we de facto have Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate, but equal” that has never actually been equal. Often it destroys hope. Continue Reading →

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National conference will focus on faith-based schools

Image from www.privateschoolreview.com

Image from www.privateschoolreview.com

As the fight to restore the ability of families to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs proceeds across the country, the future of urban faith-based schools that have served communities for decades remains in serious doubt. Often these schools have been the only choice available to families in tough neighborhoods, but because of changing economics and demographics they have been closing at alarming rates for decades. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor described them “as a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.”

Unless this downward trend is reversed, the battle for parental choice may eventually be won, only to find the actual choices available have been substantially and possibly irreversibly diminished. On June 6 in Austin, Texas the national Commission on Faith-based Schools of the American Center for School Choice will host its first conference, “Religious Schools in America: A Proud History and Perilous Future,” to bring together an ecumenical group of leaders interested in preserving faith-based schools, as well as policymakers and media.

At the conference, the commission will release a report on its view of the state of faith-based schools in the U.S., the important role they continue to have in American education, and how they can serve all families that wish to choose them in the future. It will unveil a new web site that will have state-by-state data on faith-based schools and the students they serve. And most important, the commission will lead attendees as they strategize and plan on how to build on recent promising progress in several states and the courts to create momentum for sustaining and growing these schools.

Conference sessions will be highly interactive and encourage dialogue among all attendees. They will discuss progress on tax credit scholarship and voucher programs, and in the courts, and what actions made that possible. The intent is to help attendees understand in more depth how these programs work to benefit schools, as well as how they can be enacted and expanded in their communities.

This is a unique opportunity to build support for these schools on a broad interfaith basis. Continue Reading →

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Tough-minded approach needed for Obama’s pre-K expansion

I am more politically incorrect than your average guy, so when I heard President Obama call for universal pre-K for 4-year olds in the State of the Union, I cringed. With all the raucous enthusiasm ringing around this issue since the speech, adapting Warren Buffet’s investment approach to public policy might be wise: when everyone is bold, it’s time to be cautious.obama

In 2006, when I was with California Parents for Educational Choice, we were part of a coalition of organizations that defeated Rob Reiner’s ballot initiative to bring universal pre-K to the state. It was introduced to widespread public approval, but by Election Day garnered only 39 percent of the vote. The electorate came to understand three major elements they did not like:

* Expanding pre-K to everyone, including middle class and upper income families, is hugely expensive and precious little, if any evidence, supports much educational value added for the middle class and wealthy.

* The initiative vastly expanded the existing public school monopoly, which hardly has a resounding record of educational success, especially with poor and minority students. It also mandated collective bargaining, swelling the ranks and economic power of the California Teachers Association, an organization that systematically stands in the way of innovation and reform.

* The academic outcomes were questionable. A Reason Foundation analysis found from 1965 to 2005, 4-year old participation in preschool programs had grown nationwide from 16 percent to 66 percent, but we had virtually no evidence of increased student learning on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) by fourth grade. Oklahoma, with a universal program since 1998, finished dead last on the 2005 NAEP, actually losing four points.

But that was close to seven years ago and admittedly, I haven’t followed the pre-K issue regularly. So I spent the last few days reviewing some studies and data. The key word in the Obama proposal is quality.

We likely can justify a highly targeted effort on kids in failed families or families that simply have no resources – financial, social, emotional, or cultural – to allow their children to mature and develop normally. But when Obama declares, “We know this works,” he overstates and simplifies our experience. Continue Reading →

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Highlighting the value of faith-based schools – and the void when they close

Image from uscatholic.org

Image from uscatholic.org

“I am heartbroken,” was Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s response upon hearing that her Catholic alma mater, Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx, would be among the 24 latest Catholic schools to close in an impoverished area. She continued in her New York Times interview to describe it as “symbolic of what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt poor … It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.”

In this country, we unquestionably have a shortage of quality schools, particularly those that serve urban poor families. So why do we continue to watch as hundreds of quality faith-based schools close because the financial deck is stacked against them?

Families would eagerly choose them. They have served their communities for decades. They’ve been effective. As Sotomayor noted, their dropout rates are lower and their college attendance rates are higher than comparable public schools, not to mention the significant output of distinguished civic and corporate leaders. U.S. government surveys show parents are consistently highly satisfied with them – at even higher rates than parents in chosen public schools.

The continuing closure of nearly all types of faith-based schools is a disturbing trend. And raising awareness with the public and policymakers about it is why the American Center for School Choice launched its Commission on Faith-based Schools. At its second meeting, recently held in Jacksonville, Fla., this ecumenical group with representation across the spectrum of faith-based communities decided to organize a national conference in Austin, Texas in the May/June time frame. It will focus on the peril these schools face, and draw attention to how much will be lost in American education if families who wish to choose faith-based schools cannot continue to do so. The target audience will be religious leaders, media, the research community, and legislators and staff.

In the past two years, impressive progress has been made in expanding school choice to include these schools. We now have 32 private school choice programs in 16 states and Washington, D.C., with the enactment of five new programs and the expansion of six existing ones in 2012.

The commission believes that with a focused effort and call to action, these programs can and need to grow at a faster rate to preserve the opportunities faith-based schools bring to urban communities in particular. Continue Reading →

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Wishing for better schools of education

I wish the education reform movement would put more focus on the broken schools of education that fail to attract highly qualified students or to train them to perform well in the nation’s classrooms.

REDEFINED_WISHLIST_FINALSix years have passed since The Education Schools Project, headed by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, issued a comprehensive and scathing indictment of the nation’s schools of education. The report found an overwhelming lack of academic standards and understanding of how teachers should be prepared. It determined that “most education schools are engaged in a ‘pursuit of irrelevance,’ with curriculums in disarray and faculty disconnected from classrooms and colleagues.” Moreover, schools of education have become “cash cows” for universities. The admissions standards are low. The research expectations and standards are far below those expected in other disciplines. And there is no pressure to raise student academic outcomes because, at least in part, school districts often only care about a “credential” and not the learning it represents.

Have things improved since Levine’s report? Speaking at a panel during the recent Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, previewed the results of a comprehensive study to be published in U.S. News & World Report in April 2013. It affirms little has changed. For example, only about 20 percent of schools of education have admission standards that even require applicants to be in the top 50 percent of their high school graduating class. Only 25 percent of schools of education require their students to be placed with an “effective” teacher when student teaching. Continue Reading →

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Wishing for awareness about the value of faith-based schools

I wish faith-based schools, many of which have served urban communities and low-income families admirably for decades, could be seen more as partners than outsiders in a system of 21st Century schools that will educate our students.

REDEFINED_WISHLIST_FINALWhat we need perhaps most in American education are more high quality, replicable schools. Among faith-based schools we have many of these, yet we have watched them disappear rapidly, especially from our inner cities where they have not only been education centers, but community centers. Enrollment in Catholic schools, for example, began to decline in 1965 and has since fallen by more than 60 percent, resulting in the closure of 5,000 schools, according the National Catholic Educational Association.

The overall decline in faith-based schools was chronicled well in 2008 in a White House Domestic Policy Council report, “Preserving a Critical National Asset.” Yet almost no progress has been made in halting the deteriorating circumstances for these schools. The Great Recession and ongoing demographic changes have continued the trends, but faith-based schools still educate about 3.8 million students and account for 80 percent of private school enrollment, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data from 2009-10.

The American Center for School Choice launched its Commission on Faith-based Schools in large part to focus attention on the value these schools have for American education and for many families. We want to expand the understanding that the public and policymakers have before we lose more high quality schools, especially in areas that have precious few of any type.

Virtually all of our international competitors have education systems that integrate government-operated schools and private schools, including faith-based schools. We know, therefore, that the distinctions we make are artificial. At a time when we suffer from a dearth of high-performing schools – schools that can deliver a consistently rigorous curriculum and successfully graduate a high percentage of the student body – we can little afford to watch indifferently as more good ones close.

Coming Thursday: Wishing for a progressive teachers union.

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