Less school regs, more school choice

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School regulations
Few institutions in our society are as overregulated as public schools. The crushing weight of federal, state, and district regulations severely undermines these schools’ effectiveness.

Consumer choice and government regulation comprise the two components of educational accountability systems. In the areas of home-schooling and private schools, Florida has struck a good balance between regulations and choice, but the public district and charter schools are overregulated. To achieve a more appropriate balance, public schools need less regulation and more consumer choice.

The accountability system for homeschools is instructive for private and public schools. Parents must notify their school district in writing when they intend to create a home school program. They must keep a portfolio for two years of all the instructional activities and materials used in their program, and they must provide an annual evaluation of their child’s academic progress. If their district decides their child is not making adequate progress, then parents have one year to address this insufficient progress. If, after this year, the child is still not making adequate progress, the district may terminate this home school program.

Teachers in home school programs are not required to be certified or have college degrees. This is true for parents who teach, or teachers that parents hire. Home school programs are not assigned school grades nor are they required to be accredited. In fact, state law does not require public or private schools to be accredited either.

Enrollment in home school programs is growing in Florida and nationally. Neither parents, nor school districts, nor the public is asking the Florida Legislature to increase or decrease the amount of regulatory accountability in these programs, suggesting all sides seem satisfied with the status quo. Giving home-schooling parents access to better information about how their children are performing would strengthen the program. When I home-schooled my youngest son, the feedback I got from the district about the evaluation information I submitted was minimal.

If home-schooling parents collectively decide to create a private school, they must register their school with the state, complete an annual school survey, pass health and safety inspections, and maintain attendance records to document student compliance with Florida’s compulsory attendance law. Like the home school program, private school teachers are not required to be certified or have college degrees, although the school owner is required to pass a background check. Private schools do not receive state grades.

Florida’s private school students are the only students not required by the state to be evaluated annually, unless they are using a Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship. FTC students in grades 3-10 are required to be tested yearly. Their test results must be shared with parents and sent to external evaluators who publish an annual report on student achievement in the FTC program. Any private school with 30 or more testable FTC students must report these students’ gain scores publicly.

While there is little disagreement around the balance between regulations and consumer choice in home schooling, the balance in private schools is more contentious. Some argue that because FTC students are using publicly-authorized funds, private schools serving FTC students should be required to hire teachers with college degrees.

I disagree. All parents are eligible to receive taxpayer subsidies for their education expenses via the federal tax code, regardless if their child is in a public, home, or private school. If taxpayer support is the rationale for requiring college-degreed teachers, then all private schools and home school programs should be required to hire degreed teachers. But no one is suggesting that home-schooling parents be required to have college degrees.

In addition, I’ve seen no scientific or anecdotal evidence showing that all college degreed teachers are better than all non-college degreed teachers. Bill Gates does not have a college degree but I’m confident he’s more capable of teaching coding and business management than many degreed teachers. Private schools serving scholarship students should have the same freedom as homeschools and other private schools to hire the most competent teachers available, regardless of whether they have a college degree.

Giving parents access to better information about how their child is performing would also improve private school education. About 400 private schools serving FTC students are using an online adaptive assessment system called Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) to generate real-time formative and summative achievement data for parents, teachers, and students. The MAP assessment includes comparability information to let parents know if their fifth-grader is on pace to meet the entrance requirements of a particular college or university. This is a good start. Eventually, valid and reliable data should be continually available to all private and home school parents, students, and teachers.

Making private schools more affordable for more students is another needed improvement. Wealthy families can afford private school tuition and low-income families are increasingly paying private school tuition via FTC scholarships, but many middle-class families are priced out of Florida’s private school market. This lack of middle-class access reduces the number of available private schools, which undermines accountability through consumer choice.

Few institutions in our society are as overregulated as public schools. The crushing weight of federal, state, and district regulations severely undermines these schools’ effectiveness. Public school funding comes with numerous mandates and restrictions that reduce a school’s ability to be flexible and innovative. Florida’s constitution dictates public school class sizes, which limits principals’ ability to effectively and efficiently allocate their schools’ most valued asset—their teachers. Employee salaries are controlled by the school district, which hinders principals’ ability to recruit and retain those teachers who best fit their schools. Principals can hire some teachers who lack college degrees, but most of their hires must be degreed and state certified, even if there are far more competent teachers available. A public school principal cannot hire Mark Zuckerberg to teach software programming until he completes his college degree.

Public charter schools are less regulated than public district schools, but not by much. The primary advantage most charter schools have is that they don’t operate under restrictive, one-size-fits-all union contracts.

State testing mandates also undermine the effectiveness of public schools. Unlike FTC scholarship students who may choose from several state-approved, nationally-normed tests, all public school students must take the same state test. Since Florida’s state test is not nationally normed, public school parents are not able to compare their student’s progress with students nationally.

Given all the federal, state, and district obstacles they must overcome, Florida’s public schools are performing surprisingly well. To further improve our public schools, we need to decrease regulatory accountability and increase accountability via consumer choice. Public school leaders need many of the same decision-making powers as home and private school leaders, such as freedom to hire and fire staff, control over employee job duties and compensation, and the power to determine the number of students assigned to each teacher.

No organization outperforms its leadership. If public school principals are not competent to make these basic management decisions, then all future efforts to improve our public schools will likely fail.