The drive to improve our nation’s schools is not a zero-sum game, and a report launched today on Educationnext.org shows how alternative learning options for poor and struggling schoolchildren can have a positive impact on traditional neighborhood schools.Northwestern University researchers David Figlio and Cassandra Hart explain that a tax credit scholarship for low-income students in Florida boosted the academic performance of the public schools faced with the threat of losing students to the scholarship program (Disclosure: the editors of redefinED also direct policy and public affairs initiatives for the nonprofit group that administers the program). While Figlio and Hart acknowledge the difficulty in studying the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance, they sliced the data in multiple ways (looking at the number and diversity of surrounding private schools, for instance) and found that the competitive pressure of the program led to “general improvements” in test scores among the students who remained in public schools.
The aim of redefinED is to recast the way we perceive public education. Far too often, the debate over any education program begins first with an assessment of whether it undermines traditional neighborhood public schooling. But today’s school systems and public policies have exploded the historical definition of a public education. It’s time our discourse did so as well.
The resistance to customized forms of education is not new. Well-meaning principals and administrators fought back-to-basics schools and International Baccalaureate programs and gifted education for fear they would dilute other public schools. Now, as these family choices move into the arena of charter schools, private-school scholarships and online education, the conversation often devolves into rhetorical warfare. The purpose of redefinED is to move beyond neighborhood school assignment and the increasingly blurred line between “public” and “private.” And we will do so through the lens we have established in a state that ranks as the national leader in the provision of learning options, a state that has allowed even its poorest families to customize their child’s education.