School choice inspires closer look at system

School choice inspires closer look at system


From the Sun News
Editor’s note: This weekly series of dialogues moderated by columnist Issac Bailey is designed to help provide depth and bring a variety of views on faith and ethics topics to a public forum.

When parents become more involved in their children’s education early and do a better job of raising them, the public school system will improve.

That’s a common refrain from those critical of school choice and voucher programs, one raised last week by retired professor Reid Johnson. And if more students took more seriously the opportunities before them, academic achievement would also increase.

While those arguments are correct, they don’t undermine the need for school choice. No matter the system, involved parents and motivated students will make things better.

“Pupils whose parents do five things succeed in school regardless of whether they’re socioeconomically advantaged or disadvantaged, and pupils whose parents don’t, don’t,” Johnson argued last week.

Those things include parents consistently encouraging and reinforcing their children’s intellectual development, making all privileges contingent on good efforts at school, and supporting and collaborating with teachers throughout their children’s education.

Not so fast, said reader Lil Tuttle of Myrtle Beach. She works for the nonprofit Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute in Herndon, Va. Tuttle advocates for school choice and administers a scholarship program in Virginia for families seeking financial aid for private schools.

“My own personal story refutes Prof. Johnson’s theory,” she said. “I have three children. The two girls sailed through public school and earned bachelor degrees in short order. Our son had the exact same home environment as his sisters – complete with Prof. Johnson’s five successful strategies – but by fifth grade hated school with a passion. Why? He simply didn’t fit the public school mold. In desperation, we transferred him to a private school willing to accept the challenge. Today in his mid-twenties and working full time, he still doesn’t like school, but he’s two credits shy of an associate degree and I have hopes of seeing him earn a bachelor’s degree before I die.”

One size doesn’t fit all, not in families, not in schools, and that’s why choice makes sense.

Better parenting is vital, but should we use that as an excuse to resist major reforms of a system that consistently graduates roughly half its students and test scores have remained flat for three decades even as funding as more than doubled? And is it OK to say to students not fortunate enough to be born to stable parents, “Too bad, you must remain in your current school, no matter how dismal its track record?”

There is a growing body of research that shows the educational achievement of students “left behind” in public schools, as well as those in private schools, improved wherever choice and voucher programs have been implemented. Researchers are debating whether there was a little or a lot of improvement and how much of it is attributable to choice – there is no real evidence that school choice has hurt nearby public schools.

For example, per pupil spending in Milwaukee public schools has increased since vouchers were made available.

And we can’t on the one hand say overregulation of public schools is one of the reasons improving the system is difficult and on the other demand that private schools face the same overregulation. Unlike public schools, private and charter schools that fail to adequately educate students go out of business. That’s motivation enough.

Out of a sense of fair play, I’ll let Johnson have the final say. (You can read more of his arguments and responses on my blog at http://www.MyrtleBeach Online.com.)

Johnson: Several South Carolina school districts I know well have successfully attacked the high dropout rate among disadvantaged, low achieving, non-academically inclined, and special education pupils by offering optional vocational training programs analogous to the old “Distributive Education” and “Shop Classes” of my day, well-established vocational education curricula for the past 30 years, and the “School-to-Work” projects of today.

High dropout risk students are offered more practical courses, more applied curricula and job-related training at the secondary level. This includes cooperative programs among the schools, S.C. vocational rehab and local businesses and industries, which end with internships and apprenticeships and assured job placements for highest achievers.

The good news is that these initiatives significantly lower dropout rates, are most effective for highest risk pupils, increase motivation by offering more practical, applied, vocationally-oriented course content and make schools more valuable to the local economies.

The bad news is that they only offer certificates of attendance rather than diplomas to high school “graduates.” It is also difficult to transfer between vocational education and regular curriculum, much less college-bound tracks.

Bailey: Given that there are some schools in South Carolina in which as little as 8 percent of third-graders read or do math on level and have consistently high dropout rates, why shouldn’t we embrace school choice?

Johnson: One: That’s not necessary to get a good education.

Two: Many parents, especially the highest risk, lowest achieving pupils’ parents, wouldn’t know how to choose a better school wisely if they had the choice.

Three: The logistical problems and expenses required to achieve your idea of school choice would be far more trouble than it’s worth and directly siphon precious funds from the schools’ legitimate educational expenses.

Four: The people who would be put in charge of school choice in South Carolina would corrupt your good intentions to over-fund their favorite private or parochial schools based on favoritism or religious sectarianism, both of which are about as anti-education as you can get, regardless of those schools’ quality.

They would do that to “prove” to the public that public schooling – the only reliable vehicle for upward mobility in America for over 400 years – doesn’t work.

ONLINE | For past columns and to read Bailey’s blog, go to MyrtleBeachOnline.com.


Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at ibailey@thesunnews.com or 626-0357.    

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