Could We Depoliticize School Choice?

By 05/25/2012

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Unveiling his education plan for the nation, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, this week spoke first for the principle of school choice. He promised, if elected, to use federal dollars to encourage states to offer more choices to students from low income families, including traditional public schools, charter schools, digital schools—and private schools, if states allow it. He went on to promise more transparency in school performance—better school report cards—and more support for innovative state policies to attract and retain top teachers.

While responses to the speech are just beginning, it is predictable that the governor’s mention of private schools will prompt the most heated—and negative reactions. The governor not only endorsed private school choice in concept, he promised to maintain DC Opportunity Scholarships, which opponents of private school choice have made their top priority to kill.

As a long-time student of school choice (and, full disclosure, an adviser to Romney’s education team) I anticipate the governor is in for a bit of moral outrage—for undermining, threatening, jeopardizing, disrespecting—or, insert verb of offense here—our nation’s public schools. This is really unfortunate. Not for Governor Romney, but for our most disadvantaged students. The fact of the matter is, low income students desperately need better schools, whether the ones they now attend or options that might be made available to them. Most of those options are now and will be public schools. Two million students now attend some 5,000 public charter schools in forty or so states. Millions more choose schools within their public school districts. Of course, many millions choose public schools by choosing their residence.

The Obama administration has advocated for school choice. Its signature competitive grant programs require states to ease restrictions on charter schools. So do its stipulations for states who want waivers from NCLB regulations. The Obama administration recognizes that a vigorous charter sector is important for providing choices, especially in low income neighborhoods. Charters are important for stimulating improvement in all public schools—and providing even more quality choices—as research has clearly shown that they do. I applaud President Obama for his pro-charter measures.

Governor Romney has taken a step further, arguing that private options ought to be available, too. More competition is likely to be a good thing. But private schools are not the main thing. Most of the choices and most of the competition under any presidential administration will be among public schools. This is an idea, a long time in coming and now well established throughout the country, especially in inner cities, which is widely embraced by the public. Let’s not be distracted by the political bogeyman of private schools. Let’s not politicize the debate over school reform to find wedge issues or accentuate divisions. Let’s give credit to Governor Romney for recognizing that choice cannot be effective without ample choices. But let’s not be distracted by the issue of private schools. Let us discuss how best to give our neediest school children excellent options, recognizing that under any scenario those schools will be mostly public.

My colleague at Education Sector, Anne Hyslop, attempts to do just that, in the accompanying post. Based on her ongoing research, Anne offers her perspective on Governor Romney’s proposal, written as Education Sector always tries to write—based on the facts and not on the politics.

-John Chubb

This blog entry originally appeared on the Quick and the Ed.

Comment on this article
  • Phil c says:

    Shouldn’t Mr. Chubb mention that he is on Mr. Romney’s education advisory team?

    There is no avoiding the political when we are discussing public education. We must make decisions based on what we think is right for our children, and we make collective decisions through the political process.

    Giving vouchers to private and religious schools isn’t the only political aspect to these decisions. The whole idea that privatizing schools and using market competition is the best way improve schools is an ideological position. Mr. Chubb posits that that data support this position, but the data are much more complex than that.

    Charter schools, on the whole, don’t do better than neighborhood schools. When you look at teacher turn-over, cost, attrition rates and rates of serving special education and ELL needs of students, charters do worse than neighborhood schools. There are some great charters and some great neighborhood schools and some of each are also dysfunctional.

    Ideology should not drive public ed decisions, but politics is how public decisions get made. Let’s look honestly at the data and seek information beyond what poorly designed standardized tests can show us.

  • Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    Dr. Chubb:

    Other than the potential addition of attending private schools (depending on state laws), what difference is there, really, between the current administration’s education policies and what Romney proposes? I was hoping for a break from the status quo.

    Since about 1989 the feds have stepped up the national push for their involvement in education, and those efforts have continued unabated to the present date.

    The results? All we need to do is access overall FCAT results for 10th grade students for reading in Florida over the past 10 years to note the static nature of those scores. NAEP for Florida high school reading flat-lines as well over those years.

    And as Eric Hanushek noted, despite more funding poured into education, students’ scores are dismal.

    “Let us discuss how best to give our neediest school children excellent options” is a worthy goal, but it is unacceptable to leave any student behind, no matter what economic level. We can break out students according to many different attributes, but all students and their taxpaying parents deserve choice in education and the dollars that should accompany it. High performing students at A schools in Florida don’t necessarily get the kind of education they need either. As a former homeschooling parent, I learned this firsthand.

    I appreciate the research you and Dr. Moe accomplished, especially as detailed in Politics, Markets & America’s Schools. In the book, Exposing the Public Education System, your work was regularly cited.

  • jeffreymiller says:

    The schools are not now, and have never been, the problem. The problem, such as it is, is a mix of poverty, social status, and lack of mobility plus a shrinking middle class. And Dr. Chubb, you have a lot of gall pleading for special protection from politicization when it was your party who, since 1983, have done nothing but make education a wedge issue and further politicize what indeed should not be–the education of young Americans. But I also have to admit that Democrats have done their part to fall prey to your kind of thinking. So, congratulations Dr. Chubb for winning most of the battle so far. Competition has not, and will not ever work to overhaul the American educational system. You are placing a lot of faith and very little empirical evidence in a chimera of reform. People in the knowledge industry, like the students they teach, are not motivated to do their best through threats and economic inducements. That you and your brethren believe in the magic pony of competition demonstrates a fundamental misreading of human nature.

  • Bill says:

    The 5,000 or so charter schools were looked at in a Stanford U. comprehensive research work. Check out the results before jumping on the charter school bandwagon.

    Romney, and politicians like Scott Walker, could care less about public education. They are really looking at breaking unions.

    I’m personally not a fan of unions, they hinder improvement by protecting bad teachers. But public education is a need for all people in our country. And while we could argue whether or not it should be college-prep, or include vocational education, is another debate.

    But if you think privatization is the answer take a look at the Hartford Public Schools attempt to do just that. The for-profit company walked away in two years of a five year contract.

  • Bruno Behrend says:

    With all due respect to the many dedicated and talented academics who have labored to show the benefits of educational choice…

    The short answer to whether we can depoliticize the education debate is “No, we can’t.”

    Here’s why.

    The most powerful political force in the nation, which I call the “Government Education Complex,” has 100% control over 90% of the education market. This translates to control over $550 billion+ of salaries, perks, pensions, contracts, federal/state/local elections, and curriculum.

    There is NO WAY that parents, children or citizens and are getting ANY control of ANY of that money with out a grueling, protracted, and necessary political fight.

    This has ceased to be an academic debate about what is best. There are scads of ‘research’ financed by both sides, and no one is swayed by the volumes of studies as much as they are by the overbearing expense and obvious falling behind evidenced by simple observation.

    The only thing left to do is politically defeat the forces of the status quo (unions, administrators, bond dealers, the public employment lobby, debt churners, pension seekers, contract seekers, etc.)

    To be sure, there will always be a place for well-informed reformers to talk about about “getting along” or “working together” for the children.

    Meanwhile, however, the children don’t have time for such “Kum-Bah-Yah” niceties. This is brass-knuckle time. Scott Walker time. Mitch Daniels time. These are the people getting school choice for the most needy of our society, and they are doing it politically.

    It’s like Ronald Reagan said when discussing diplomacy toward the USSR with his egg-head advisers in the late 70s.

    “How about ‘we win, they lose’?”

  • Bruno Behrend says:

    The schools are not now, and have never been, the problem. The problem, such as it is, is a mix of poverty, social status, and lack of mobility plus a shrinking middle class

    The above mindset is prevalent among those defend the existing system. They use “poverty” and unequal status as a reason to defend a broken, expensive, and needless bureaucracy.

    Ask yourself this question. How does a massive school bureaucracy solve the “poverty” or “status” issue for one single child in American education.

    We have, over decades, allowed an accretion of every manner of bureaucrat to manage every manner of social ill the might manifest itself.

    We have armies of needless social workers, psychologists, directors, coordinators, and assistant bottle-washers that make up nearly half of those employed in K-12 public ed.

    To what benefit? The answer? None.

    These armies have not made ANY social ill better. While anyone could pull out an anecdote about what these folks do, the fact is that American public education continues to get more expensive, and less effective at addressing ANY of these issues.

    But boy, can it employ scads of people.

    The best thing that charters, choice, and digital learning options have going for them is that they will burn through these needless jobs like a prairie fire.

    When money follows the child to a vast new array of education providers, it will be the child, the best teachers, and the best service providers that benefit.

    Add an “education savings component” to a choice model, and the money will be there for any tertiary need like social work or counseling.

    Those comments above saying the “choice won’t work” are simply defending an indefensible system that is surviving off of political power and inertia.

    If choice and charters did nothing more than to provide us with the same outcomes for dramatically less money, they would provide a massive service to the nation.

    Fact is, knowing what we know – that the best schools would start to flourish as the failing schools adapted or closed – it becomes clear that choice would eventually advance the nation farther and faster than even its most fervent supporters envision.

    Let’s just start dismantling the existing system now. The faster the better.

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