Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Questions for so-called education reformers

Dr. Ed Eiler, Superintendent for the Lafayette School Corporation, recently paid for a full page ad in the

Lafayette Journal and Courier in support of public education and the issues we are dealing with right now
in the current State legislative session [worth qouting at length].

Privatization, vouchers, choice, and charter schools.

I am concerned about flight from the urban schools in Indiana that will result in an increase in the density and concentration of students living in poverty in our older cities. Any public policy that has that effect is unsound and will result in defacto segregation. Of equal concern is the possibility that students from rural schools will migrate to suburban schools. The reality is most school districts have a limited capacity to accept additional students. This will require school districts to implement selection criteria regarding who they will allow to enroll. While it would be possible to develop a limited number of neutral criteria such as allowing children of employees or students living within a specific geographic boundary, the potential for discriminatory policies is quite real if not on paper, then in implementation. In essence the state is enabling school districts to choose students. The parents who elect and are allowed to exercise the choice will be parents with the money to do so. If choice is to be a public policy, there could not be a worse form of choice. A far more defensible choice option would be to give students living in poverty (which should be defined as the threshold for free and reduced lunch, not the $101,982 for a family of four set forth in the Indiana School Scholarship Tax Program) who fail ISTEP the choice of where they go to school and require schools to provide transportation. This would have the effect of distributing poverty.

Present law holds the portent of substantial swings in enrollment. When combined with the volatility of sales tax revenue these circumstances will make it extremely difficult to plan, budget, and meet the needs of students.

There is also the question whether some schools will apply their cash transfer policies in a non-discriminatory fashion. It would be easy to deny some subsets of students. For example, this could hold true when a district has a reputation of providing excellent special education services. It would be very attractive for parents in neighboring districts to pay cash transfer to attend school in the district providing the better services. This raises the specter of overtaxing the resources of the district by being confronted with providing programs which are not adequately funded or merely not accepting the special education student as a cash transfer student. Of course there is the issue of athletics.

As in medicine the first litmus test for any public policy should be “do no harm”. A second test should be that the public policy should not generate greater problems than the problems the policy is designed to solve. In this case problems associated with urban districts with high poverty populations will make the problems of parents not being able to select the “best’ school pale by comparison. In part we are focusing on the wrong issue. The issue is how do we deliver quality education to all students? The bottom line is at present no proposal exists that creates an environment of fair competition.

There are a multitude of people in America with agendas. Not the least of which is greed and self-interest. There are people who believe they can make money in education through skimming the cream of the crop of students and those who will become richer by not having to support a public educational system. In America money buys influence and power. These motives should not drive educational decisions.

Currently a series of “documentary” style movies funded by voucher advocates including Waiting for Superman have painted a picture of a failing public school system in which no public educator is shown in anything but an unfavorable light, if at all, and charter schools are presented as the solution. (For a more complete analysis see Diane Ravitch’s, The Myth of Charter Schools, in the New York Times Review of Books.

Charter schools are not the panacea they are painted to be. Virtually every example of charters with substantial achievement results incorporates the ability of the charter to select students. Any school which is allowed to select students should be expected to outperform schools who are not allowed to select their students.

The foregoing notwithstanding, I believe there is a narrow niche charter schools could fill. They could serve as a safety net to ensure there is an educational alternative available for children who otherwise would not be receiving an education. That is in fact the reason the Lafayette School Corporation agreed to sponsor the one charter school it has sponsored.

There is a greater issue posed by privatization, vouchers, choice, and charter schools. The issue is much larger than the impact these policies may have on an individual school in a local community. The issue is one that will define who we are as a nation. Do we choose to be united or divided?

Vouchers cost taxpayers money because with vouchers the state has created two school systems, one private the other public. A study by Columbia University Professor Henry Levin concluded a national voucher plan would cost taxpayers nearly $33 billion additional dollars just to pay the tuition for students already in private schools. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau concluded that in Milwaukee where vouchers were offered, property taxes were higher than they would have been without a school choice program. Private school tuition does not cover the actual cost to educate students. While subsidies from other sources can be used to educate a select few children, such a model cannot be used for all students. Indiana’s solution is to fund vouchers and charter schools by taking money from existing public schools.

A United States Government Accounting Office study “found little or no difference in voucher and public school student’s performance.” In the vast majority of cases across the country voucher schools are not required to reveal student test results or give students the same tests required of public schools. The reality is private voucher schools are allowed to play by an entirely different set of rules than those imposed on public schools. They do not have to accept any child who wants to attend. What is the poverty at-risk student count, the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, the number of limited English language, minority students, or special education students in the schools that want to tout their schools performance as better than public schools? True competition requires everyone to operate under the same set of rules. If that fails to occur, the idea that vouchers somehow introduce competition is intellectually dishonest. The current programs being discussed by policy makers and the public are not voucher plans. They are targeted assistance plans. Genuine choice requires every child be given the resources to make a free choice of where they attend school. This would require a huge investment of resources. Even if a portion of that money were directed towards our current public school system a vast majority of our children would benefit greatly.

Proponents of vouchers and privatization need to answer the following questions:

1. How will a system of private or charter schools do a better job of ensuring all children will have equal access to educational opportunity than the current system of public education?

2. What methods and techniques of instruction are used in private or charter schools that are better than those used in public schools? If there are some, for the good of the country don’t you think these should be shared with everyone?

3. What laws, rules, and regulations are private or charter schools exempted from that permit them to be more effective or efficient? If there are some and the nation is at risk, don’t you think all schools should be exempted from them?

The biggest problem confronting our world in the 21st century is and will remain the increasing schism between the haves and the have nots. Public schools help close that schism, not widen it. Public schools serve all children. Public schools try to teach respect for others and tolerance for differences. Public schools do not allow students to ignore content standards. Public schools aren’t about training children for a specific job at the expense of the arts. Public schools do not exist to make money for a select few. Public schools are about believing in all children and inspiring them to hope and dream.

Creativity and fresh thinking are not the sole purview of those in private or charter schools. If there are ideas that would benefit children, they need to be shared with everyone so that all children benefit. Our children are far too important for us to do otherwise.

During the last legislative session the legislature passed the Indiana School Scholarship Tax Program. Examination of the laws in other states underscores the significance of what is not contained in the Indiana School Scholarship Tax Program. There is no prohibition about the contribution directly benefiting the dependent of a donor. There is no language limiting the tax credit to a single parent of a child whose parents are divorced or separated. There is no prohibition in using the scholarships to fund the costs of teaching religious tenets or doctrines of worship. The program goes beyond providing scholarships only to people who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

It is clear the law was enacted to begin the process of funding private education. The law diminishes tax revenue available to the state. The law has the effect of attempting to remove the argument concerning government support of parochial schools by removing the government one step from the distribution of money directly to parochial schools. Given the nature of the income restrictions the law will advantage families of means, children already attending private schools, and children attending parochial schools.

Arguments about tax credits will continue. Should the state forego money that could be used by the state for other purposes including public schools and allow that money to fund private and parochial schools? Who should benefit from such a program? If a tax credit program is going to exist, what form should it take? Should it encompass a credit for all parents for educational expenses regardless of where a child attends school? Should the program be expanded to include funding educational reform and improvement initiatives? As a minimum, efforts need to be taken to amend the law to correct the lack of clear definitions and lack of transparency.

Some of the today’s most controversial proposals may have some merit. Seniority, the structure of the tenure system, and the scope of collective bargaining are legitimate topics for public policy discussions.

There are many educational reform proposals being made by state and national legislators. If these measures are built upon objective data and are modified by reasoned discourse, they should be implemented. If the intent of any proposal, however well disguised, is to serve political agendas, personal self interest, or is built upon popular prejudices supported by false claims, that reform should be discarded.

Public education is one of the pillars of our nation. As Horace Mann put it, “The public school is the greatest discovery made by man.” He believed education is best provided in schools embracing children of all religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds.

Do changes need to be made to our current system? The answer is yes. However, at present the environment of the discussion can be described best by Herman Wouk’s introduction to Caine Mutiny, “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles scream and shout.”

There is a substantive difference between opinion that is informed by peer reviewed research and uninformed opinion. Unfortunately in today’s world of viral media, uninformed opinion is given as much, if not more weight, than informed opinion. Discussion of educational reform must be informed, reflective, and respectful. I am concerned about the repercussions of some of the ill conceived proposals being offered. I am afraid they will create an even greater sense of confusion, frustration, turmoil, and will result in unwise public policies.

Addressing the challenge of educational reform requires far more words than this superficial treatment of the topic. It requires knowledgeable professionals engaged in research, study, discussion, and practice.

The idea of improvement and accountability are good ideas, but not wrapped in a package designed to degrade public education and spur privatization. I believe there is no better calling than nurturing, inspiring, and empowering children to learn. The task of educating our children is of vital importance to our future. The overwhelming majority of teachers and administrators chose the education profession to make a difference in the lives of children. I can only hope that everyone engaged in addressing the topic of educational reform will “Put Children First” as much as the overwhelming number of public school teachers and administrators do.

Edward E. Eiler, Ed.D., Supt, Lafayette School Corporation

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