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August 12, 2011 standard

As we continue talking about Parent Power efforts and the education traditionalists who unreasonably oppose them, let’s also remember that there are other forms of action that parents should be able to exercise, but are restricted from doing so. One is the very concept of school choice, especially inter-district options that can allow children to escape the worst American public education offers. But thanks to the practices of zip code education — including zoned schooling and moves by suburban districts to restrict the expansion of charter schools or even allow for inter-district choice — public school choice (at least in the form of charters and even vouchers) is largely restricted to cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. While efforts such as Race to the Top, along with moves by 13 states this year to expand choice, are wonderful to behold, the fact that so many believe that kids should remain in poverty-and-prison mills is just shameful.

In this Best of Dropout Nation from 2008, Editor RiShawn Biddle provides some early observations on what has become one of the defining themes of this publication: The right of families to give their children the high-quality teaching, curricula and cultures they deserve. Read, listen, think and take action.

The parents of some 260,000 Texas school students will not learn whether their child will be allowed to move from the poor-performing schools they currently attend to better ones as allowed under the No Child Left Behind Act until, October, a month after the beginning of the school year, according to the Houston Chronicle. Not surprising, advocates for those parents are a tad steamed. They should be: The Texas Education Agency, for one, was fined by the federal government three years ago for failing to give parents timely notice about their school choice options.

The latest delayed notification once again spotlights one of the realities of public education: Public school choice doesn’t truly exist, especially for parents of children attending the worst of America’s traditional schools.

Opponents of public charter schools and other forms of school choice generally argue that there is plenty of choice within the traditional public school district in which one resides. At least, that is the theory, especially as magnet schools and other programs have sprouted up in response to those calls for options. No Child’s public choice provision is also cited by choice opponents as an example of public school options.

The choices, however, must be high-quality in order for parents to exercise them; the better-performing campuses can’t just be marginally better than the other dropout factories and academic failure assembly lines in the district. The reality, as I’ve noted over the years while covering the 11 school districts in Indianapolis, is that this isn’t the case. Considering that the label “dropout factory” can — and should — be applied to entire school districts such as Baltimore, Indianapolis Public Schools and Detroit, one can’t help but agree that few parents have little of quality from which to choose.

Even if there are high quality schools and programs,  parents and students must go through gatekeepers — in the form of teachers and guidance counselors — in order to get into them. And depending on the parent’s relationship with those gatekeepers — and more importantly, how that child is perceived by them — these kids may never get the chance to exercise their academic potential. This can be seen in the low numbers of black students participating in AP courses and in the very classes at the elementary- and middle-school levels that prepare them to get into them. As noted by Christopher McGinley, the former superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Cheltenham School district and now the head of the school district in Lower Merion, school districts don’t help middle-class black parents — many of whom are the first in their generation to reach such status –in getting the information they need to make the choices needed to get their kids on that path.

Just as important in the choice question is the ability to use the options in a timely manner with no delay. As seen in Texas (and in Indiana, where similar delays have ocurred), few parents get the information they need in a timely manner; this despite the fact that both district- and state-level officials know which laggard schools will land on the Adequate Yearly Progress list long before all the processing is completed. By the time parents get the information, it’s either summertime — when no one is thinking about schools — or at the beginning of the school year, when plans have already been made.

Before all this, they must know they have choices in the first place. Justin Bathon and Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy reported in a study released last year that such lack of notice — the problem at the heart of the Texas imbroglio — is widespread. Fifty-eight of school districts failed to timely notify parents of their choice options during the 2005-06 school year, according to the General Accountability Office. No wonder why just one percent of the 3.9 million children eligible for school choice options under No Child actually exercised them.

This lack of real public school choice is especially galling when one realizes that state governments, on average, now provide nearly half of all school funding — and in cases such as California and Indiana, the percentage is even greater. State governments can, if they so choose, actually create public school options that stretch across an entire state, allowing parents and children to choose good schools that are still close to their neighborhoods — or, if they choose, make the commute to a better school in the next district. As school data systems become more longitudinal, the concept of dollars actually following the child can truly become a reality, ending the kind of segregation that limits choice.

But this will take a willingness on the part of reform-minded policymakers, school reform advocates and chambers of commerce to spar with suburban school districts and the parents who send their children to those schools. Although those districts can be just as academically inadequate as their urban peers, their problems aren’t as easy to see; public school choice could expose those flaws even more than No Child’s AYP provision already have. And from the perspective of suburban parents, they have already exercised school choice and thus, care little about those who cannot. Essentially the “I got mine, get yours” mentality at work.

This also means battling teachers unions, who don’t want their urban district rank-and-file to lose their jobs. Public school choice, if exercised widely, would also be a verdict on the instruction given by those teachers who are not as good at the jobs as others. And urban districts, of course, wouldn’t be too fond of this either.

Until real options are made a reality, public school choice is more of a fantasy in the minds of those defending the status quo than for the parents and children stuck with little option at all.

April 4, 2011 standard

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Arizona’s voucher-light education tax credit program, essentially giving blessing to another form of school choice. While the ruling is largely a sensible one (one can take the position of justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia that such lawsuits shouldn’t be allowed in the first place because the Constitution doesn’t prohibit the use of state dollars for publicly funding all educational options), it is only one piece of an effort to expand choice and give parents the ability to do it for themselves when it comes to school reform.

Choice on its own isn’t a panacea. The need to develop robust ways for parents to exercise choice — even the choice to team up together and start their own schools — is still critical. As Dropout Nation pointed out in January, one way to expand choice is by finally completing the move away from local control and property tax-based funding of education. Thanks to decades of battles over equal funding of schools and efforts at property tax relief, states now provide the plurality of all school dollars, accounting for 48 percent of all school revenues nationwide (with Ohio providing a bit less — 45 percent — and New Jersey at the national average) — and this percentage will increase because adequacy and equity remain key issues in education, and because property tax relief still remains a goal in many states. Replacing all local funding with state dollars would certainly begin improving equity in education if done the right way: Essentially turning the dollars into vouchers that follow every child to whatever option families choose, be it public, private, parochial or even DIY and storefront schools.

Then there is the quality issue.  As well as many charter schools are serving students, there are still far too many that aren’t doing the job; and authorizers in turn, aren’t shutting them down. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out earlier this year, 72 percent of low-performing charters (along with nearly all traditional public schools) remained open five years later. It isn’t enough to offer choice; school operators of all kinds must also be subjected to robust accountability to make sure that they are improving student achievement. Improving school data and building networks of school information centers at the grassroots level (along with private-sector data efforts that would make school information a consumer good) would also help parents walk away from abysmal schools no matter what they are.

The tax credit plans blessed by the Supreme Court — including those on the table in states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania — are good steps. But they aren’t enough on their own to spur reform. This is no time for harrumphs from choice supporters. Our kids need more and deserve better than what we are giving them now.

standard

Saturday’s Dropout Nation Watch video on the D.C. Opportunity school choice program led Kwame M. Brown of education consultancy Move Theory to ask why do I continue to support school choice. Basing his argument on critics of choice such as Diane Ravitch (who dedicates much of her recent claptrap, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, to arguing against choice), Brown asks why support school choice when there is evidence that families won’t choose anything other than local schools.

Given the fact that the most of the studies about parents and their choices of neighborhood versus out-of-neighborhood schools are  fairly old (even the most-recent studies on this matter are about three years old), the reality is that it is hard to opponents of choice to argue that parents don’t want choice and won’t choose schools outside of their neighborhoods when given the opportunity. More importantly, such an argument ignores the realities of supply and access that complicate the ability of parents to actually make choices.

If you want to know whether parents will choose schools outside their communities, the simplest way is to look at the enrollment of districts with robust school choice options. In Washington, D.C., charter schools accounted for just 5 percent of overall public school enrollment in 1998-1999; this year, it accounts for 39 percent of all students enrolled in public schools. During that same period, D.C. Public Schools enrollment declined from 71,889 students to 45,630. (This number doesn’t include the 1,700 kids who took advantage of the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which was targeted only to students attending the worst of the District’s dropout factories.) There is also Detroit, where charter schools now account for 32 percent of enrollment in 2010, contributing to the decline in enrollment in the traditional district; or look at New York City, where charter school enrollment increased by 41  percent in the past. (I would also point to New Orleans, where charters now account for 62 percent of  public school enrollment; but one must also note that the circumstances by which choice came into being — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — means that it isn’t as good an example to use in these circumstances).

Then there is Boston, where pilot schools (which are essentially charter schools) have also proven to be a popular option. As Monique Ouimette and Rosann Tung pointed out in their 2008 study on choice in Boston’s school district, 27 percent of parents exercising choice in the school system made pilots their first choice (unfortunately, the pilots only accounted for 11 percent of enrollment in the district, pointing to one of the obstacles to choice upon which I will later elaborate). Pilots were the choice of 36 percent of families with eighth-graders heading into freshmen year of high school.

I can actually go on and on, but the point is clear: If parents are given a robust array of school choices (that is, a wide supply of schools outside of the neighborhood school including charters, private school options through vouchers and even intra-district choice) and access to high-quality information about those options, they are quite likely to choose an option other than the traditional neighborhood school. This doesn’t mean they will always make the right choice (although as a Rand Corp. study of the school choice options used under the No Child Left Behind Act in seven districts argues otherwise). Nor does it mean that they don’t generally prefer to send their kid to a school within their neighborhood; as a team led by Brett Kleitz pointed out in a 2000 study on school choice in Texas, location was the number three concern for parents of all racial, ethnic and income backgrounds (after education quality and safety). Poor parents, in particular, have to balance school quality concerns with the ability to get their kids to and from school. And there are issue when it comes to quality of school options.

What it means is that parents are willing to use choice when given the opportunity to do so. That is clear. But in asking his question, Dr. Brown did hit on some issues that Ravitch and other opponents of choice (and even some of its supporters) tend to ignore.

The first? That parents can’t exercise school choice properly if they don’t have enough data on the options available. Once a family knows what their choices are, they are more than likely to make the right ones. But they need data and other information resources in the first place. While state and district school data systems have become more-robust, they still don’t provide data with the kind of easy-to-understand information on school performance parents need to make smart decisions. The compliance mentality that still dominates traditional public education also means that sources of data that could be used for decisions are not available to parents (or to anyone else) in useful ways. And in the case of intra-district choice options, school districts don’t usually have the capability (or in many cases, the political desire) to fully inform parents about their school choice options.

As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam, it is critical for school reformers to push for improving school data systems and for creating grassroots nonprofits that can help inform parents and guide them in respectful ways on making high-quality decisions. The expansion of Parent Power groups, along with the passage of Parent Trigger laws will also help spur choice; such groups can help inform other parents about how to make smart decisions, while Parent Trigger laws would actually give parents the power to make decisions about whether to invest time in overhauling neighborhoods or seek other options. (By the way: It is also critical to deal with the school transportation factor; following the example of Indianapolis, which requires charter schools to provide transportation for every student who can’t just walk to their buildings, would go a long way towards easing the transportation factor.)

The other factor, which Ravitch and others tend to gloss over is that at this time, school choice is hardly robust. As Jim Guthrie, who now serves as a scholar at the George W. Bush Center, points out, just a fifth of the nation’s families can avail themselves of some kind of school choice. What exists for those families is still limited. Voucher programs exist in only a smattering of cities and are generally targeted only to either kids coming from the poorest families, kids in special education programs (Florida’s McKay vouchers, for example) or to families with kids attending the nation’s dropout factories.

The Race to the Top initiative is helping to expand the reach of charter schools. But currently, charters still account for five percent of all enrollment; and in many states, the growth of charters is still limited by caps on the number of charters that can be opened. In many states, charters cannot be opened without the approval of the traditional school district; given that those districts — especially those in suburbia — don’t want any competition for students (and the tax dollars they generate), there are still artificial limits on choice. This is why only one-fifth of charters are in suburbia — and why families living in suburban areas outside of robust choice cities such as D.C. often have far less supply of (and diversity in) school options.

Choices within districts, both through magnet schools and through the school choice options required by the No Child Left Behind Act, are also limiting. Magnet schools, the most-basic form of intra-district choice, accounted for only 1.8 of the nation’s 96,513 public schools in 2004-2005 (the most-recent data available). Even in those magnet schools, school districts attempted to control choice by pushing for socioeconomic diversity, which meant a limiting of options for all students; and thanks to the politics of districts, middle-class parents still ended up with their pick of the proverbial litter. Poor and minority families still get left out.

No Child’s intra-district choice option — which requires districts to inform parents of kids in “Need of Improvement” schools with information about the failure of the current school and the school options available to get kids out of them — has also been a failure, with less than 1 percent of families who can use the option actually doing so. Why? The reasons are mostly systemic. For one, many districts do not inform parents about their options until June. This is not enough time for families to research their options. There is also the fact that under No Child, the school (or more importantly, the district) can reject the family’s choice; a district can argue that a better-quality school doesn’t have enough seats to accommodate new students. Even if a family has the wherewithal to make a choice, districts can be the very barrier to making the exercise of options a reality.

The reality is families can only exercise choice when they have it. They can only exercise it properly when they have high-quality data (and guidance) available to make smart decisions. Their choice may be to have a high-quality school in their own neighborhoods — and they deserve that. Which is why we must continue to systemically reform American public education and move to a model in which we fund the highest-quality school opportunities for all children, no matter where they live. Nor is choice a panacea; again, it is why we must reform teacher quality, curriculum, school leadership and education finance.

But it is critical to offer these families the ability to choose the best schools for their children. If you believe that education is the most-critical civil rights issue of our time, you can’t support denying families the ability to escape dropout factories and failure mills. If you believe that education is a consumer good that requires the ability of parents to make choices, then you also can’t support denying choice. And if you want to spur reform, it is critical to give families the ability to move their kids out of cultures of academic failure and into cultures of genius.

Let’s be clear: The systemic reform of American public education will take time. It must be done. But for our young men and women, the moment is now. They get only one chance to get ready for the future – and their parents only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. As I noted in yesterday’s Dropout Nation Podcast, these families deserve robust school choice and the right to escape the worst American public education offers. Anything other than that is merely sentencing future generations of children (and America) to economic and social failure.

December 10, 2010 standard

If education is truly the most-important civil rights issue of this era, it means that black churches must play their part in ensuring that every child in the pews and communities they serve are educated in cultures of geniuses. It is as important for them to step up and embrace school reform as it was for them to combat Jim Crow segregation fifty years ago. For these churches, they can learn this important lesson from another civil rights movement — the effort by Catholics to receive equal treatment in public schools: You must take education into your own hands and start your own schools for the children in your flock.

Catholic schools had existed in this country since the 1600s, when the church started schools in the Spanish colonies (including what is now Florida and California) to indoctrinate American Indian children into Christianity. But by the early 1800s, Catholic education in the English colonies that became the United States took on a different purpose: to providing an education and freedom from religious oppression for the children of parishioners. At the time, most public schools were Protestant-dominated (in this case, a heavy dose of Calvinism at the expense of Unitarianism and other sects)  with students reading from the King James Version of the Old and New Scriptures.

This heavy-handed religiosity intensified by the 1840s as Irish emigres populated urban locales; Protestants, driven by their fear of foreign “papist” influences (and their own bigotry), began adapting the Unitarian-shaped civic religion approach of Horace Mann in order to get Catholics under their thumb. In Philadelphia, for example, Protestants burned down five churches after the diocesan bishop demanded that Catholics be exempted from having to read the King James Bible; in New York State, efforts by Gov. William Seward to provide funding to Catholic schools was met with the kind of bigotry that was otherwise reserved for African Americans of the time.

But Catholic schools didn’t become a widespread until 1852, when the First Plenary Council of Baltimore called for parishes to start diocesan schools in order to provide an alternative to Protestant-dominated public schools. This accelerated in 1859, when Thomas Whall, a Catholic attending the Eliot School in Boston walked out of the school after twice refusing to read the King James Version of the Ten Commandments (and being spanked by the principal after his second refusal); his walkout, along with that of 100 other students, led St. Mary’s Parish to start it own school; other parishes in Boston and elsewhere soon followed.

But for Catholic priests and laymen, it wasn’t enough to just free the kids of parishioners from religious oppression (and ensure that all kids who received communion were educated).  Ensuring that poor kids were educated became as much a part of the Catholic school mission. Catholics began educating black students in 1829 when Mother Mary Lange cofounded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore; by 1894, this educational mission included teaching black and American Indian children in the West thanks to the work of Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. And in an age in which preparation for factory work  was a critical part of education, Catholic schools began forming industrial schools to prepare kids for productive activity. By 1920, in spite of bigotry-inspired Blaine amendments and general hostility towards Catholicism, diocesan schools had become the primary private schools for America, serving 1.8 million students in 6,551 schools.

Today, Catholic schools continue this mission, with blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians making up 26 percent of its students; 14.5 percent of students overall (and often, the majority of kids in big city schools) are not even Catholic  These schools also achieve great results despite the poverty of the students in their care, with the average Catholic 4th-grader scoring 16 points higher on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their traditional public school peers; only 18 percent of kids reading Below Basic proficiency versus 34 percent of their public school peers.

But the high cost of maintaining aging Catholic school buildings, along with the costs of hiring laymen to teach students (versus the nuns and priests of decades ago), and the view among some Catholic that the schools have diluted their perceived primary mission of providing a religious education, has led to a decades-long decline in the number of schools. As seen in New York City (where the nation’s largest archdiocese is struggling with budget deficits) and in D.C. (which closed all but four of its inner-city D.C. schools), it is harder for dioceses to continue serving kids who aren’t part of their faithful.

Yet poor, minority, and even middle-class kids still need escape from the worst (and the mediocre) American public education offers. As seen this week in the results from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (along with results from the NAEP and a dropout crisis that leads to 1.3 million kids dropping out every year), these students need and deserve high-quality education. And while charter schools have begun to fill some of the needs in big cities (and achieve the same levels of student achievement found in Catholic schools), state laws restricting their expansion, along with the opposition of affiliates of the NEA and AFT, frustrate the growth of charters.

Meanwhile one can also say that these kids need more than just academics. At its best, religious instruction provides students with the hope and the moral education they need to avoid falling into poverty and prison. The lessons of self-sacrifice, delayed gratification and the Golden Rule are almost as critical to surviving in life as Algebra and reading.

For black children and their Latino counterparts in big cities and suburbia, black churches could provide the academic and spiritual education they will often not receive in traditional public schools. These  churches already provide food pantries, social services on behalf of government agencies, and provide Sunday School to kids in their flock. And black churches have filled this role before. It was the African Methodist Episcopalian denomination that launched some of the most-prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Wilberforce University (which my grandmother attended) and Morris Brown. During and after Reconstruction, other black religious leaders founded Morehouse, Clark Atlanta University and Spellman.

Some churches, most-notably Floyd Flake’s Greater Allen Cathedral in the New York City borough of Queens, are already involved in sponsoring charter schools and serving on their boards; others lease their surplus space to charters as part of expanding high-quality school options for kids in their respective communities (along with collecting rent on unused real estate). A few even operate schools of their own. But this isn’t enough. As Catholic parishes did 150 years ago, more black churches must step up to the plate and ensure that the kids of their faithful get the high-quality education they need in order to fulfill their economic and social destinies. It isn’t enough to stand idly by or simply provide mentoring programs to students in local schools. It is as important for black churches, their pastors and their flock to save their kids from the nation’s educational crisis (and keep them off of the ravages of public welfare) as it is for them to save their souls.

It isn’t as if black churches don’t have the money. As one would say, if you want to know about where the money of black people go, start at doors of their local churches. Ninety-percent of charitable giving from African-Americans goes to their local churches, according to the Internal Revenue Service; these churches often buy abandoned properties in the neighborhoods in which they serve in order to spur economic redevelopment. While many black churches aren’t blessed with massive treasuries or megachurch-sized memberships, there are plenty with the means — financial and otherwise — to start their own schools. One-eighth of all black churches have revenues of more than $1 million, or have more than enough means to get into the education game. Even smaller churches can band together and form schools that serve communities within their radius.

The issue is capacity; after all, many black churches struggle to properly manage their operations and use strong financial controls. But even that isn’t difficult to solve. In many black churches, the very people who can help with these capacity issues — including accountants, lawyers and other professionals — already sit in the pews. There are school operators, including Green Dot Public Schools and the Knowledge is Power Program, with whom churches can partner on developing the academic capacity. The emergence of digital learning and other technologies can also allow churches to provide education at a relatively low cost; imagine an Abyssinian Baptist Church providing blended learning in Harlem?

The benefits of black churches starting schools would most-certainly benefit kids. But it also helps the bottom lines (financial and social) of the churches themselves. By saving young minds, the churches keep kids out of prisons and help them become productive citizens who rebuild surrounding communities. The presence of black churches as school operators would also bolster the case for expanding school choice itself. For reformers, this is an opportunity to build the kind of alliances with grassroots leaders that will help sustain reform and end the status quo of mediocrity and educational malpractice in American public education. And for school choice activists and those who support a free market in education, the presence of black churches as school operators also expands the number of choices and players in the market for educational options.

Black churches can no longer play gospel in the sanctuaries while kids drop out into poverty and prison. They must embrace school reform and take the role that Catholic churches have done for so long and for so many.

December 3, 2010 standard

Asking families and children to put up with mediocre schools  is almost criminal. It is just that simple. Keeping the families of our poor and minority kids shackled to dropout factories and failure mills should most certainly be against the law. When defenders of the status quo say that families should not have a wide array of educational options available — be they traditional districts, public charters, private and parochial schools, or even online learning — they are essentially arguing that there should be no civil right to a high quality education. That argument is absolutely wrong on every moral and intellectual level.

Poor and minority families should not have to wait for these dropout factories to either shut down or be overhauled. Neither should middle-class families or anyone else. What these families deserve is the option to escape. They deserve school choice.

At this moment, for many families (and most-certainly for our poorest kids in urban and rural communities) choice doesn’t really exist. Most traditional districts continue to zone kids to particular schools, restricting their ability to escape low-performing schools. Even in cities such as Houston and Indianapolis that are home to numerous school districts, a child must still attend a zoned school even if a better traditional public option is right across the street from their home. When intra-district choice options — notably magnet schools — do exist, they usually end up being used by middle-class households, who use their strong political connections (and exploit ability tracking systems that serve as the gateways into such schools) to assure seats for their own children.

But it isn’t just about escaping the worst American public  education has to offer. Even in relatively better-performing (if often still mediocre) suburban schools, poor and minority kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula. For them and their middle-class schoolmates, the need for options that better-suit their educational needs is one that most traditional districts just cannot meet.

We know that better options are emerging and some of our poor black, white and Latino families can walk with their feet. High-quality charter schools can improve student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. Are all charters high-quality? Certainly not. But most of the problem lies mostly with how schools are authorized and which agencies or groups handle the authorizing; high-quality charter school laws will lead to high-quality authorizers will foster the development of high-quality schools; low-quality charter school laws (such as those in Missouri), will lead to the converse. Solving those issues is a matter of improving regulations (and moving away from allowing traditional districts from serving as authorizers), not by restricting the growth of charters. Charters should be as plentiful in suburban communities as they increasingly are in our big cities.

School vouchers can help poor students attend private and parochial schools that succeed in improving their achievement. The options are already out there. Catholic diocesan schools have been serving as a way out for poor families for the past century; the average nine-year-old Catholic school student scored 8 percent higher on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress than his counterpart in a traditional district (and that gap remained constant among middle-school and high school students tested). Is it a perfect solution? No. The biggest problem of choice is providing poor families with the information they need to make high-quality choices. The other problem is that  there aren’t enough of them. The number of Catholic schools in the United States — 42 percent of which are located in big cities — has declined by 12 percent between the 1998-1999 and 2008-2009 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

But as seen in Milwaukee and in Florida, vouchers can help stimulate a market for new school options; more importantly, unlike traditional public schools, failing schools can also be shut down — especially when knowledgeable parents walk away from them with their feet. The solution is to the availability of school data, provide parents with resources for making better choices, and stronger oversight of schools, not restricting the options. (This also holds true for online learning options.)

The reality is that the traditional model of public education — school district bureaucracies, zoned schools and local control — is not only antiquated (if it ever worked at all), it also denies our poor and minority kids equal opportunities for high-quality education. If education is truly a civil right, then there should be no political restrictions on school choice. Wider array of school choices are always better than fewer and none. And opponents of full choice — a group that can sometimes include centrist Democrat school reformers opposed to vouchers — can’t offer strong and convincing arguments to the contrary.

The argument that public funding shouldn’t go to private or religious organizations doesn’t hold water: As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in a 2008 report on reviving urban Catholic schools, the federal government already pours $3 billion annually into Catholic Charities alone. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman ruling allows for vouchers. Centrist Democrat and progressive school reformers are more than happy to back charters, which are operated by nonprofit and even for-profit organizations. And billions of federal and state funds flow through our nation’s private universities — the choice options for aspiring collegians.

Nor can opponents appeal to history to continue justifying the restriction of choice. From Blaine amendments to the debate in the early 1960s over President John F. Kennedy’s effort to provide funding from the National Defense Education Act to Catholic and Jewish schools through loans, the opposition to the use of public money for parochial schools has had less to do with any honest objections than to religious bigotry. The old-school goal of immersing kids in a civic religion — be it the old Protestant-dominated version of a century ago or the more political ideology-tinged versions of the modern day — should be abandoned for the more-important goal of making sure children have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities life in the global economy offers.

All this said, choice cannot work without the rest of civic society playing its part. African-American churches such as Floyd Flake’s Allen A.M.E., for example, have played strong roles in fostering charter schools. But they must take on the role long-occupied by the Roman Catholic Church and start their own parochial schools serving the very kids in the community whose souls they shepherd on Sundays. Charter school operators must improve the quality of their own offerings, innovate in training teachers and make parents the true kings and lead decision-makers in education they should be. And it may be time for black and Latino families to conduct their own homeschooling on a mass level, starting schools that serve kids in apartment complexes or even on just one block.

If defenders of the status quo truly want every child to receive a high-quality education, they need to abandon their opposition to school choice. Progressive and centrist Democrat school reformers must get over their squeamishness about vouchers. And we must all accept that choice is part of securing the civil right of high-quality education. There is no reform of American public education — and education cannot be a civil right — without school choice.

June 21, 2010 standard

The argument over whether kids need high-quality curricula -- and higher education -- is redundant and moot in this day in age. Every child needs high-quality education. (Photo courtesy of Forbes)

A dominant debate in education reform is over whether or not students should have to take on high-quality, college-preparatory curricula or should be able to choose a vocational-oriented curricula that allows them to get jobs immediately. Defenders of the first group (including the Gates Foundation and Kevin Carey of the Education Sector) rightly point out that children need college prep curricula in order to avoid being part of the 50 percent or more of college freshmen who end up in remedial courses and thus never graduate. The other side (a motley crew that includes Charles Murray and defenders of traditional public education) argues that far too many kids are going to college anyway, that they are going for degrees in jobs that don’ t actually need higher levels of preparation, that the curricula is too challenging for most kids, and that they would be best apprenticing for positions.

This isn’t a new argument. In fact, it is as old as the debate over whether high schools should be college prep-oriented (as legendary Harvard University president Charles Eliot envisioned and successfully pushed in the late 19th century) or the comprehensive track-based system that has been predominant for the past 70 years. The racialist origins of the latter (that blacks and immigrants couldn’t succeed academically) notwithstanding, the argument remains active especially in the age of No Child Left Behind and modern school reform. For those who believe in vocational education — shop classes and the like — the emphasis on academic curricula to them is a bias against blue-collar work.

But a list compiled earlier this month by Forbes should put an end to this counterproductive argument. The evidence is clear: All kids need a high-quality curricula that prepares them for higher education of all kinds, be it college, vocational college or apprenticeships.

The list, America’s Best Paying Blue-Collar Jobs, notes that just about all the top-paying positions that don’t involve working at a desk require some form of higher education. An elevator repairman and installer, for example, must apprentice for four years before being ready to take on a complex job that involves aspects of mechanical engineering, structural engineering and electrical engineering. Another position, rotary drill operators in the oil industry, usually need to have an Associate’s degree in order to get through the door. Electrical and electronics installers — including those who work on power plants and substations — also need community college education and will spend a few years working alongside veterans to gain experience. The only job that doesn’t require such experience (in theory) are long-hall truck drivers; even then, many of them go to technical school to learn how to drive big rigs and buses (if they don’t already have such experience from working at Greyhound).

In essence, all of these positions require some sort of higher education — not in the 19th century sense of just the Ivy League campus, but in a much-older sense of apprenticeships, technical colleges and yes, traditional private and public universities. This shouldn’t be a surprise. As I’ve mentioned on this site, welders need higher-level math skills such as trigonometry just to qualify for apprenticeships within the automotive industry, and machine tool-die manufacturers are often experts in algebra, calculus and other mathematical subjects. Highly-skilled blue-collar professionals need high-level math skills — and the underlying reading skills that help young men and women learn how to master the underlying symbols and knowledge that girds all of mathematics — as much as their white-collar counterparts.

The coming generation faces even more complexity. Thanks to the Internet and the advancement of data systems in every sector, mastering statistics  is now critical for journalists, marketers and many other white-collar and blue-collar professionals. Plumbers — often cited by opponents of high-quality curricula as the ultimate high-pay no-skill job — requires technical education (and strong underlying K-12 education) in order to make it. Even auto repair work — once grease monkey work in the minds of previous generations — is now a knowledge-based sector thanks to the widespread use of computers in engines and other sections of cars.

What all children need is a high-quality curricula, no matter where they live or what school they attend, in order to choose their own path in a much-more expanded concept of higher education that includes traditional college, vocational school, community colleges and apprenticeships.  So do our communities, especially the poor urban communities that suffer as a result of the failures of dropout factories and the rest of traditional public education; they cannot be revived without a core group of middle-class white-collar and blue-collar professionals to lead the way. So does society: Plumbers should be able to easily cite Chaucer in polite conversation, if they so choose; after all, Western Culture cannot survive and thrive without highly-educated people at every level and professional rank. If we all truly believe in lifelong learning, eliminating all limitations on that is crucial to encouraging all children to become well-studied adults.

It is no longer a question of whether children need high-quality, higher ed-driven curricula or not. It is a question of whether they will get it before we all pay the price. Or in short, the Kevin Careys and the Charles Murrays just need to stop arguing and get to work.