Tag: inter-district choice

Reform School Funding, End Zip Code Education

This week, we have seen poor parents fight fiercely to improve the quality of education for their children — and run up against institutional and political obstacles that should never…

This week, we have seen poor parents fight fiercely to improve the quality of education for their children — and run up against institutional and political obstacles that should never exist.

In Ohio, Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted of violating the law by placing her two daughters in the relatively high-performing Copley-Fairlawn school district(where few of the black students drop out) instead of keeping them in the woeful Akron district (whose Balfanz rate for young black men and women, respectively, is 62 percent and 76 percent) in which her family resided. Her case has gotten national attention because few parents are ever convicted of what is laughably called tuition fraud, and because of her willingness to even risk prison to get her kids the high-quality education they deserve.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, East Orange resident Lisa Brice joined other parents to stare down state legislative Democrats and get them to approve a bill that would allow 40,000 poor kids a chance to escape the worst of the Garden State’s well-funded dropout factories. They face a tough battle thanks to the National Education Association affiliate — which needs a victory after Gov. Chris Christie has clubbed them senseless politically this past year — and school funding equity advocates (who demand that the state pour more money into districts covered by that state’s Abbott decision despite evidence that past spending increases haven’t improved student achievement).

Kelley and Lisa have taken different approaches, legally and otherwise, to improving education for their children. But they shouldn’t have to fight so hard in the first place. Asking children and their families to be shackled to dropout factories and failure mills is absolutely criminal. They should have the ability to escape those failure factories and attend any high quality school available to them. And we should reform how we fund education — both in the sourcing of those dollars and how they are packaged — in order to make choice a reality.

The philosophical reasons why defenders of traditional public education (and some centrist Democrat school reformers) oppose more-expansive school choice — from the belief that vouchers will lead to the end of public education as they prefer it (government-run and no private sector players) to the queasiness over funding parochial schools — is well-known. So is the general reason why suburbanites oppose school choice — because they have already exercised what they think is adequate choice by buying into their homes. These qualms, however, would have little staying power if not for the critical systemic problem in making school choice a reality: The hemming and hawing among states about taking over the full funding role that they need to undertake in order to make choice and other reforms a reality.

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). Given that adequacy and equity remain key issues in education, and that property tax relief still remains a goal in many states, that percentage will increase. 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 school, public, private or parochial, they so choose. It would also spur the next steps in reform; districts can no longer use the argument that reforms will cost them in terms of local tax dollars as their justification.

Yet governors and legislators — especially those of a school reform orientation — haven’t fully embraced moving towards full state funding, even though it isn’t that hard to do politically. Part of the problem is that doing so can be fiscally difficult to do; increasing state income in exchange for reducing local property taxes — the common way states have used to take over education funding (as part of property tax relief efforts) — does mean funding education with a less-stable source of revenue. That problem, however, can be mitigated by financing education with a basket of different revenue sources. The bigger problem is political will. The fact that some still believe in the myth of local control despite evidence that states dominate education policymaking also means that they believe that education funding should also be a local matter. Teachers unions and suburban school districts also oppose a state takeover of education funding because it will lead to some logical steps, including weighted student funding formulas that will lead to the creation of school vouchers.

This stalemate over the direction of education funding has consequences. Districts can justify opposition to school choice; after all, they can oppose school choice because they still collect local property tax dollars and parents outside their boundaries don’t provide those funds (even though they are financing the same schools through their state income taxes). At the same time, the districts can even deny choice to the children they are supposed to serve by continuing zoned school policies. All children no matter their economic status — but especially those from poor families such as the kin of Kelley and Lisa — pay the price.

The only way school choice can become a reality is by overhauling school funding. This means state governments must pick up the tab, and ensure that funding follows children by ditching program-based formulas. Taking these steps will ultimately open up opportunities for improving the educational destinies of the children of Kelley and Lisa. And improve opportunities for all children.

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Making Families Consumers — and Kings — in Education

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Parent power can’t merely be empty words.

Wall Street Journal's Top 25 Companies of the Decade

Choice is no panacea. But as seen in the consumer products market, choice can help spur innovation. Let's try this in education.

If Calif. State Sen. Gloria Romero succeeds in allowing  parents in the state to to replace administrators and teachers at their schools (or convert the schools into charters), it will be an amazing step. Same is true if discussions in New Jersey about expanding its inter-district choice program come to pass. And the  federal Race to the Top initiative could provide even more options to parents — especially those stuck with sending their children to the worst urban school systems.

At the same time, these events offer an opportunity to consider what education policy — and America’s education system itself — should look like in the next half-century. And the answer is: Similar to the markets for consumer products everyone enjoys.

Few sectors in the American public or private sector are as dominated by experts, technocrats and lobbyists as education. From the development and approval of curricula to the kind of schools children can attend, the decisions are based, much consideration is given to what some adults want, how some adults want to be paid, national economic and social priorities, and occasionally, what children actually need. Every now and then, what children and their parents want does come into play. But this a rare event.

But imagine if children (and to be honest, their parents) actually could choose the kind of schools they want to attend, select the curricula that they will learn, even whether they will attend a neighborhood school or a manicured campus in suburbia? It would be difficult to figure out the direction of education at that point; after all, parents use schools as much for social-climbing and instilling their own values as they do for providing the most-rigorous education possible for their children. But it would be interesting: Perhaps “education villages” — where hipsters-turned-parents and single mothers can stay in the city and still gain the best of suburbia — would spring up in the heart of Atlanta. Or children otherwise deemed troublemakers in the traditional public school settings of today will learn in classes where the instructional day is compacted for more efficiency (and thus, less time for having to sit in class wasting time as likely to happen for students in Chicago).

These thoughts come as the Wall Street Journal presents its chart on the 25 largest companies in the world at the end of this decade. As pointed out by William Easterly (who spends his time criticizing foreign aid), only eight of the top 25 companies at the end of the 1990s kept their places by the near-end of 2009. Only six tech firms made up the top 25 versus 13 at the end of the 1990s; the tech firms on the list range from old-school software crossing into videogames and consumer wares (Microsoft) to handy cloud computing and search (Google), to a company that managed to switch gears and helped complete the personal technology revolution began by the Sony Walkman (Apple Computer).

Certainly, many of the companies knocked off the list had merged into other companies or went bust altogether; others just seen declines or stagnation in their market value. But mergers and market value losses represent a reality that these companies didn’t cater to their consumer markets. Notes Easterly: “Creative destruction is one of the triumphs of the market. The consumer is king: in 2009… The radical uncertainty of how to please consumers is an argument FOR free markets.”

At this moment, American public education is undergoing its own peculiar form of creative destruction, as education reformers and a smattering of parents — armed with data, research and political power — are forcing defenders of the status quo (teachers unions, schools of education, and school districts) to accept the need for effective change. As Fordham’s Checker Finn points out, reformers are slowly being forced to admit that their longstanding conceits also need updating (and more often than not, ditching altogether).

Yet, as I’ve pointed out over and over, the reformers must also rid themselves of their faith in expertise. They must begin to embrace the grassroots and, more importantly, accept that children and their parents must have more than just a seat at the table of decisionmaking. They must be the decisionmakers, period, and anything less just won’t do.Why? Because the nature of the reforms being proposed, promoted and legislated — all of which  involves choice, consequences and accountability — requires active participation from parents, and therefore, their support.

Choice begats choice; this is true when it comes to cellphone plans and this is also happening in education. The advent of Milwaukee’s school voucher plan in the early 1990s didn’t foster widespread development of vouchers. But the program, along with the charter school movement, has spurred the interest among parents in the kind of choice initiatives being considered in these states (and may likely become reality in the Los Angeles Unified School District). Once parents are exposed to having real power and engagement in school decisionmaking, they will not want the traditional expert-driven approach. This is a good thing.

Now, I’m not advocating for an education system that is fully free market in orientation. The reality is that the underlying infrastructure for such choice — easy access to useful information through guides, organizations or Web sites; actual mechanisms for exercising choice that exist outside of home purchases — is only coming into existence. Parents are just beginning to realize that the old concept of education — that the school can educate every child without active engagement of families that goes beyond homework and field trips — has gone by the wayside; they will make mistakes along the way.

Poor parents, in particular, need guidance; yet the current public education system treats them as even bigger nuisances than the middle-class families (who can exercise enough influence to just be merely ignored) and wealthier households (who ditch the public school system altogether). Assuring equality of opportunity in education, no matter one’s income, should not only be of paramount importance, it would be a more-effective form of economic policy than stimulus plans and tax cuts combined; the evidence largely clear that dropouts cannot be contributors to economic and social life.

But giving parents power, choices, options, advice and information should be the governing credo of education reform for the next half-century. It can be done.

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