Mathis on school choice: What does the research say?, VT Digger, 2/9/12

posted Feb 10, 2012, 3:07 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Feb 10, 2012, 3:09 AM ]

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William J. Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

School choice has again blipped onto the Vermont political screen. The federal government is bringing pressure on the states to adopt choice schemes, primarily in the form of charter schools. Vested interest think tanks, heavily supported by the deep pockets of the Gates, Broad and Friedman foundations, have been the strong but less visible pushers.

Vermont’s historical choice system was founded on very different principles than today’s ideological agenda. In the 19th century, the aim was to provide public education to all Vermont children and the existing patchwork of private academies and religious schools were folded into a universal system. The purpose of the current movement, however, is to replace public governance with a privatized capitalistic model. The Vermont constitution says the purpose of education is to advance the common good (increase virtue and prevent vice). Thus, providing education as a market commodity fundamentally changes the democratic purpose of education.

Today, school choice models are promoted as “reforms” that will cure the so-called “failings” of schools. In reality, the nation’s failing schools are heavily concentrated in low-income neighborhoods with a high proportion of children of color who attend heavily under-resourced schools. Nevertheless, school choice is touted as a way of solving school problems without actually dealing with the real problems.

The nation now has more than a quarter-century’s experience and knowledge on the various types of school choice. The National Education Policy Center enlisted 18 of the nation’s scholars to examine various facets of school choice and tell us what the research says. From their forthcoming book, here’s a preview:

•Academic achievement: Setting aside the so-called “research” by groups advancing or opposing choice, the legitimate peer-reviewed research shows, in general, there isn’t any difference in test scores. There are good choice schools and bad ones. They are distributed in much the same way as traditional public schools. To be sure, politicians and advocates cherry-pick exemplary schools that fit their predilections. But if higher test scores is the objective, school choice is not a very effective way of getting there.

•Integration and segregation: School choice systems segregate by race and by income. There are two Vermont studies that confirm the national pattern. This is a dangerous direction for a nation already demonstrating the greatest wealth segregation of any developed country. Schools are the one remaining institution that melds all elements of society. In an increasingly cyber-fragmented world with big business loyal to their international bottom line, holding our culture together becomes more difficult, more critical – and more important.

•Educational innovation: A common sound-bite is that schools have to be more innovative in the 21st century. However, schools of choice are no more innovative than traditional schools. The reason is that parents, as a group, want traditional schools that embrace traditional values. The paradox is the cyberworld is coming but parents and communities also want conservators of fundamental values.

•Centralization and school closing effects: “Money follows the child” means that when a child chooses another town’s school, then the home town must pay the tuition. This can have a devastating effect on small schools, taxpayers and smaller villages. Parents tend to choose the bigger town where Mom or Dad works — which solves the huge Vermont transportation problem. (As one researcher wryly noted, “School choice exists for those who can get there.”) Small schools are more economically fragile and the loss of only a few students could be the tipping point. Taxpayers must maintain their local school as well as pay tuition, or close the village school. Parent and town involvement suffers as students become part of some more distant and larger school.

•Financial effects: If “money follows the child,” there has to be limits on the amount the state pays. The problem arises when parents take the funding allocation as a subsidy for an expensive private school. This is not an option for less affluent parents. It is exactly this kind of partially funded voucher system that led to huge inequities and resulted in riots in Chile.

Although not seen in Vermont as yet, a cautionary tale is playing out on the national stage. Charter management organizations have taken over a number of schools, cut the number of teachers, reduced salaries, hired less qualified teachers and increased the money pocketed by the big business owners. Students are “enrolled” who can’t be found when the auditors came around. The phantom student problem is acute for cyber-education. In a high profile case, K-12 Inc is currently being sued for “deceptive recruiting” practices. These raise complex auditing and legal questions.

On first examination, school choice schemes appear as an appealing exercise in personal freedom. In many cases, a different school, a new opportunity or a special program may make this the wise and correct decision for an individual student. Such alternative adjustments must be part of all public schools. When sweeping choice schemes are contemplated, however, an array of issues are raised that can inadvertently change the entire nature and purpose of education, and thus society – and not always for the common good.