Thursday, June 09, 2016

Two New Models for School Choice

Across the nation, there are three common ways to increase school choice: charter schools, vouchers (subsidies) to help pay for private school, and tax credits for companies that donate supplemental funds for voucher programs. All three approaches have serious deficiencies, and I propose two better alternatives.
But first, what is wrong with the current options? Charter schools are relatively unregulated, compared to regular public schools. They often are special-purpose schools that do not offer solutions for the broad swath of typical students. A common problem with school-choice options such as vouchers and tax credits is that such bills will be tied up in court challenges on the grounds that public money is being diverted to private, profit-making schools. The widely popular Nevada program, for example, is now held up in court.
Voucher programs provide only part, often around a half, of the cost of private schools. In the Nevada plan, the state transfers up to $5,700 per child directly to the parents. But the national average private school tuition is approximately $9,518 per year. Thus the shortfall means that only people who have the means can pay the difference. In other words, voucher programs are a subsidy that clearly discriminates against the poor and minorities. How can that survive court challenge?
Also, think about what happens to a public school when all the middle class students transfer out. Public schools can be undermined in another way as well. In Nevada, for example, all the funds that normally would go to the public school are transferred, thus removing support for overhead costs of running a school (utilities, janitorial service, physical plant maintenance, etc.).  In addition, a new bureaucracy has to be created to administer the program and monitor allowable expenditures by every participating parent.
Arm waving and lip service will not do. We must seek better options. One option is to privatize the management of public schools. An innovative approach has been enabled by Louisiana Senate Bill 432, passed on May 12, 2016, which transfers oversight of charter schools to local school boards. In the New Orleans Parish district, historically shamefully inadequate, there is now the opportunity to put schools under contract management. Basically, the program allows the school district to convert all public schools into charter schools, controlled by safeguards from abuse by supervision of the Orleans Parish school board and state law. Each school can have complete autonomy over all areas of school operations, such as school programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and texts, business operations, and personnel management. Further details are provided in the documents listed below.
Parents can send their children to any school in the district, and all schools must use the district-wide enrollment and expulsion system. Schools that develop so much excellence that enrollment limits are reached can create lottery admission policies. This puts enormous pressure on the local board to hire contractors who can upgrade the performance of the other schools. Multiple contractors are not only allowed but encouraged. Boards have the authority for competitive bidding processes that ensure competition among the various schools it also makes sense to allow students to transfer from one public school to another, or even to a public school in an adjacent country. Florida just passed such a law.
In Louisiana, safeguards include the requirement that each charter school must have independent third-party administration and monitoring of state high-stakes tests. The state Department of Education can withhold funding from any school districts that under-perform or abuse these new liberties. Local boards have authority to close a charter school. The state superintendent of education can rescind the charter for any school that is being inappropriately protected by a local school board.
A second option that I propose is to break up mega-enrollment schools into smaller schools-within-a-school as separate units that face open competition for enrollment. Carving out smaller schools would increase school choice because there would be more schools and more competition. They could be managed in the usual ways or as in New Orleans by independent, competing contractors. Note that the philosophy is akin to that used in premier universities like Oxford, where separate small, relatively autonomous "colleges" are embedded within the university.
Inner city schools with enrollments of several thousand or more are common after the sixth grade. This has helped to create the dysfunction in inner city schools. It is a well-documented fact that smaller schools produce better student learning. That is why you don't see private mega-schools. Super-sized schools breed attitude and behavior problems and are bad for education quality because:

  • Students become part of a herd collective, losing individuality and personal attention from teachers who know them well.
  • Students have less opportunity to hone leadership skills or to participate in key extracurricular activities.
  • Behavior and security problems are greater. Teenagers have enough trouble "finding themselves" emotionally and socially without being swallowed up as just another number passed from teacher to teacher who can't possibly know much about everybody's learning and emotional needs and problems.
  • Students in mega-schools face fierce and demotivating academic and social competition. Only a few get to participate in the popular extracurricular activities. School can cease to be fun. Almost a third of public school students quit, and many more just drift through. Minorities are especially harmed.
  • In this school-within-a-school model, the small schools may grow too large because of population growth in the community. But if that happens, the district can build new schools with the same school-within-a school philosophy. The philosophy
In this school-within-a-school model, the small schools may grow too large because of population growth in the community. But if that happens, the district can build new schools with the same school-within-a school philosophy.
Small schools can still have the same amenities as mega-schools if the districts create shared facilities, such as cafeteria, stadiums, sports arenas, gyms, band rooms, vocational education shops, special-needs or advanced placement teachers, administrative staff, etc. With shared facilities, construction costs are reduced. Support staff might actually be cut if many facilities were shared. For academic instruction in low-enrollment subjects, like calculus, a small band of roving specialty teachers could service several small schools.
There is no justification for extra administrators. The principal and staff that now serve a school of three thousand can just as readily service five schools of 600 each. The core of quality education lies in the teachers, who will do their best if they have autonomy and  competition.
In summary, educational policy wonks and legislatures should stop pursuing controversial and flawed choice options and consider these two models. Both offer more choice, do not discriminate against the poor and minorities, do not undermine public schools, easily pass court challenge, and are likely to produce better educated children. The public does not have to embrace subsidies of private schools to get more school choice.  
Districts may be slow to implement such reforms, because in many districts, the superintendents and their boards have comfortable cozy relationships. But once parents have access to better options, they will elect the kind of board members who demand real change.

Sources:

Readers interested in my efforts to improve a child's success in school might be interested in my e-   book, "Better Grades, Less Effort" at Smashwords.com or "Memory Power 101" at bookstores   everywhere.

  

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