Thursday, October 25, 2012

Romney and the False Promise of School Choice

Once again Mitt Romney is on the campaign trail “dissing” the teachers’ unions and advocating for school choice. His reasoning is fair enough: if a student is “trapped” in a failing school, her and her family should have the opportunity to pursue other options, at taxpayers’ expense, with the “cost per pupil” of her district be used at another area public school that demonstrates much better returns for its pupils.  He mentions charter schools, which really doesn’t apply because anyone is able to enter charter school lotteries. He also mentions cyber schools, though data on their efficacy is far from ready to be evaluated. That leaves private schools and regional public schools.

Since we are not talking about a voucher per se, the likelihood that courts will allow tax money to be used to fund attendance at a parochial school problematic. As for private non-sectarian schools, the tax money would barely make a dent in tuition, and even now poor students are free to apply to these schools, utilizing scholarship money that many of these schools have set aside for poor students with strong academic records.

That leaves other public schools, and quite frankly there are very few of these schools, especially in affluent communities, that have room to take in out of district students; most are struggling with existing overcrowding problems, and there would be strong public pressure not to accept them. There are exceptions; I believe that South Hunterdon, for example, has low local enrollment and is receptive to out of district students. But these options are rare.

So while I understand the policy that “money should follow the student,” practically speaking there are limits to its effectiveness. My opposition to this policy, however, is much deeper and much more profound. The Romney policy is an individualistic position, diminishing the importance of  allocating resources to these poorly performing schools. He seems to think that his policy will somehow stimulate competition for dollars among schools, which in turn will improve performance. I have found no research that supports this mantra of competition, and with respect to charter schools this competitive mode of thinking is completely contrary to the impetus and rationale for such schools, which is to serve as “laboratories for innovation” and not as competitors to the local public school.

The only real solution to the problem of poorly performing urban schools is not to try and undermine these schools but to make a commitment to improving the quality of work performed at these schools by administrators, teachers, and students. It also requires making a commitment to applying reasonable pressure on parents to do a better job advocating for their children. 

Many of my previous blog posts are devoted to the issue of improving these public schools. These improvements include incentivizing teacher salaries, incentivizing the system for attracting new teachers, liberating teachers from onerous state curriculum mandates so they are free to design new courses, changing the graduation test to better reflect what students should be learning in high school, freeing administrators from the pressures inherent in running a “data driven” school, employing clinical supervisors for new and “at risk” teachers, providing incentives for parents to be more active advocates for their children, partnering with stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities to broader opportunities for learning and for careers after school, providing resources to help college bound students better prepare for entrance tests like the SAT or ACT, and, finally, trying to find a way to reshape inner city communities to reflect a more diverse demographic. You can find details on all of these ideas by looking back on this blog.

I would love to create a new political action committee that will advocate on behalf of these and other ideas to improve the quality of our inner city schools. As I previously detailed, 99 of the 100 lowest performing schools, based on HSPA scores, can be found in the two lowest District Factor Groups developed to group New Jersey schools. New Jersey really is the “tale of two cities,” in this case the issue being the “performance chasm” between urban and suburban public schools.

Urban issues have gotten NO attention in the current presidential campaign, and that does not bode well for those living in America’s inner cities. Until pressure is brought to bear on our political leaders, these schools will continue to suffer, as will their students. I am ready to join those interested in making the case for urban schools to our political leaders. Waiting for them to help is a recipe for ruin. Action is needed, and it is needed now, especially if we will soon be dealing with a President Romney and his vision for our schools.

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