Archive | May, 2012

Romney can move the ball on school choice – if he leads

Mitt Romney’s white paper on education, “A Chance for Every Child,” offers laudable support for increased parental choice and for other  changes, such as tenure reform, that must occur to improve education in America. Like Obama, Romney wants to leverage federal dollars to move states in the right direction on public school choice, especially the removal of charter school caps and the adoption of open enrollment policies. He also advocates for private school choice “where permitted by state law.”

But is his plan viable? And will he lead to implement it?

Romney would remove most of No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards in favor of expanded reporting on how schools are different. He would allow states to set their own standards and tests, but print the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) outcomes on school and district report cards. NAEP brings much value to the discussion of education performance in America, but none to how an individual school district or school is performing because it does not test sufficient numbers or in every school and district. Implicit in this move – away from accountability by achievement measures towards improved information about schools – is that such information is lacking today. But parents are actually quite knowledgeable about local schools’ pluses and minuses and can access sites such as for more detailed information.

So, for this information to be vastly more empowering than it is today, Romney recognizes that school choice would have to be dramatically expanded. That’s especially true for public school choice where, frankly, most of the schools will be for the foreseeable future.

The Romney plan seeks to expand choice primarily in two ways. First, he would convert Title 1 and federal special education (IDEA) funds that go to schools serving economically disadvantaged students. They would become vouchers that the eligible Title 1 and special ed students could take to any other school, including a private school, or even to a tutoring provider or digital school. Second, he would require states, as a condition for receiving these funds, to adopt open enrollment policies and eliminate caps on charter and digital schools.

The Title 1 and IDEA proposal is worthy of consideration. Continue Reading →

How does ‘Tear down this wall!’ sound for a school choice rallying cry?

Nobody invoked Ronald Reagan this week and demanded that somebody (Randi Weingarten? President Obama? The local school board?) “tear down this wall,” but two school choice champions got close. Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill used the Berlin Wall analogy yesterday in a redefinED post about the big-picture trends in ed reform. And in a beautiful coincidence, Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, did so today in an op-ed for CNN.

Wrote Enlow: “Just like the millions of East Germans who demanded freedom, we know that there are millions of parents that want to be removed from a system that uses a zip code to determine where their children must attend school.” He concluded, “Vouchers should be made available to children no matter if they are poor, disabled, from the middle class or from a family of 10, or from a rural, suburban or urban area. There should be no restrictions on who gets to choose, just like there were no restrictions on who could escape tyranny once the Berlin Wall fell.”

Also by coincidence, one of the nation’s biggest pollinators for school choice, Jeb Bush, delivered an ed reform speech in Colorado this week. He didn’t explicitly urge anyone to tear down any walls, either, but according to Education News Colorado he did implore the audience of 1,700 to “join reformers to make school choice both public and private the norm in our country.”

Hmmm. Anyone else see speech potential here? Tampa. August. Fired-up delegates shouting “Tear down this wall!” as millions watch …

It’s time for the Berlin Wall to fall in America’s public education system

Getting lost in the complexities of education reform is easy, so I use the following analogy to help me understand the daily ebb and flow of school reform issues.

School districts are East Germany.

School choice programs are refugee camps comprised of people who have left East Germany.

The promised land (i.e., a better public education system) is West Germany.

The promised land becomes attainable when the number of families in refugee camps becomes large enough to make a well-regulated, market-driven public education system viable.

I equate school districts with East Germany because they are command-and-control, politically run monopolies where teachers and parents have little decision-making power. School districts employ legal barriers (i.e., the Berlin Wall) to prevent families from leaving, although affluent families have always been able to buy their way out. Increasingly, lower-income families are accessing resources (i.e., tax credit scholarships and vouchers) which allow them to get out also.

While this analogy is not precise, it does help me understand the motivations, tensions and contradictions that permeate the current education reform movement. Today we have two parallel reform movements. One is attempting to improve productivity within East Germany, while the second is trying to knock down the Berlin Wall and turn all of public education into West Germany. Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: Tax credit scholarships in N.C., Democratic feuds over school choice in California and more

North Carolina: The legislative push is on to start a statewide tax credit scholarship program. (Associated Press)

Florida: A former state board of education chair defends the state’s decision to offer free tutoring services to low-income families. (Miami Herald)

California: Expanded school choice is at the heart of an increasingly tense feud within the Democratic Party between the teachers unions and supporters of education reform. (Reuters)

Washington: Charter school supporters hope the fourth time is the charm in finally bringing charters to one of the last states left without any. (Seattle Times) Continue Reading →

In honor of Memorial Day

 We’re off today. We hope you are too, too.

Please enjoy this time with friends and family. Please also remember what this day is about.

(Image from Arlington National Cemetery.)

California goes to court for education reform

At every crossroads toward the future, it’s been said, tradition will post 10,000 people to guard the past. For frustrated Californians that see the need for significant change in the education system, a major number of those guardians are found in California’s Democratic-controlled legislature and the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is the state’s largest political contributor. Unfortunately, the problems are not new. I wrote at length on the terrible effects of California’s teacher employment laws and practices back in 2005, attacking tenure, seniority, and the evaluation and compensation systems as damaging to students. The depth of dysfunction in California has been documented repeatedly, perhaps most thoroughly in the 2007 “Getting Down to Facts” report, issued by Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice.

One of the key conclusions of the report, based on 22 separate studies it commissioned, was this: Current teacher policies do not let state and local administrators make the best use of the pool of potential teachers nor adequately support current teachers.

Five years later and with virtually no changes to teacher employment, compensation, dismissal, or tenure laws or practices – and no hope of any legislation passing – California’s reformers are following in the steps of great civil rights movements and seeking relief from the courts. In October 2011, a group of families, with support from EdVoice, sued the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to force compliance with a mostly ignored California law known as the Stull Act, which mandates among other things that teacher evaluations occur regularly and that they include student performance data.

Even the current LAUSD superintendent admitted in his deposition that “the current system doesn’t best serve adults or students” and does not focus on “the whole part of an education, and that is how students do.” Now the Democratic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has jumped in on the side of the families, filing a friend-of-the court brief insisting on change and noting that LAUSD only evaluated 40 percent of tenured teachers and 70 percent of non-tenured teachers. Moreover, the district’s own task force found “only a tenuous link between evaluations and improved teaching and learning.”

Last month, my colleague at the American Center for School Choice, Steve Sugarman, analyzed the current Reed vs. State of California case that is, at least so far, defeating the “last in, first out” hiring practices that the CTA advocates and most school districts adopt. This policy leads to disproportionate firing of teachers in schools that serve poor neighborhoods and operate in difficult urban areas because the seniority policies of unions and districts place the newly hired teachers at these schools. Thus the trial court found the practice unconstitutionally deprives students of an equal education.

Just last week, lawyers filed on behalf of eight teenage students across the state a third attack on the teaching status quo that demonstrably damages kids. Continue Reading →

School choice movement can’t give grenades to opponents

Editor’s note: Tuesday’s New York Times story about tax-credit scholarship programs sparked a flurry of reaction from leading school choice supporters, including John Kirtley, who chairs Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the tax credit program in Florida. In a blog post today, the Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer took exception to some of the guidelines Kirtley proposed for other state programs, and also raised concerns about what he calls the “hyper-centralization” of Florida’s program. Here is Kirtley’s response:

First, I want to thank Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute for his engaged dialogue on the vital subject of tax credit scholarship program design. I also want to say that I have been an admirer of Cato for over a decade, and even attended its wonderful “Cato University” in the late 1990’s.

The main point of my response is this: as someone who is trying to pass, grow and protect parental choice laws in Florida and across the country, I live in the real world of legislation and politics. We are trying to change something that has been the same for 150 years. Those who don’t want change are extremely powerful, well-funded, and have willing allies in the press. We have to fight hand-to-hand legislative and political combat state by state. And we can’t hand our opponents grenades with which to blow us up.

Adam is absolutely correct that you can only drive so much excellence through top-down accountability. Our scholarship organization’s president, Doug Tuthill, and I constantly talk about the “new definition” of public education we would love to see — a transformation from “East Germany” (pre-Berlin Wall fall) to “West Germany.” We see a system where end users allocate resources and choose among many providers and delivery methods – public or private. Of course I understand, as Adam asserts, that such a system will produce better results. I’m a businessman! Or at least I used to be, before this movement took most of my time. But we can’t wave a magic wand and create that transformation overnight. And as in any free market system, there is a role — though many will argue over the extent – to be played by government.

Adam points out there is more fraud and waste in public schools than in scholarship programs. So what? We’re held to a higher standard. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. In Florida, when stories of public school teachers having sex with students was the topic of Letterman and Leno monologues, one of the most respected newspaper columnists in Florida blasted vouchers because a private school principal took a bunch of young girls unsupervised to Disney World. There weren’t even any scholarship kids at the school. Another newspaper called for the repeal of the tax-credit program because (among other things) not every school had submitted documentation of their fire inspections. At the same time, the Orlando Sentinel (to its credit) ran an article about public schools in the area that were so out of fire code they had to hire fire marshals to stand watch at them. No one called for those schools to be shut down.

The point is we operate in a zero tolerance environment in Florida. Opponents to choice are desperate for examples that the program isn’t being operated properly. They would love to find a family that makes too much money to qualify, or to learn household incomes or sizes weren’t documented properly. And it would hurt us if they did. Continue Reading →

Romney: “I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way”

Mitt Romney is all in on school choice, at least according to the speech he delivered today at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit. Here’s a piece of his prepared remarks:

First, I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way. Too many of our kids are trapped in schools that are failing or simply don’t meet their needs.  And for too long, we’ve merely talked about the virtues of school choice.

As President, I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school.  For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted.  And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it.

To receive the full complement of federal education dollars, states must provide students with ample school choice.  In addition, digital learning options must not be prohibited.  And charter schools or similar education choices must be scaled up to meet student demand.

Instead of eliminating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as President Obama has proposed, I will expand it to offer more students a chance to attend a better school.  It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation.

Romney came back to the D.C. program later in the speech. He used it as one of several examples where teachers unions blocked school choice programs and proposals. Continue Reading →