Adam Dayan, Esq.
School Choice: What Of It?
This post almost got scrapped. An article I saw in yesterday's paper motivated me to try to revive it (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/opinion/teachers-will-we-ever-learn.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=0).
Lately, it seems like the school choice debate is everywhere. People seem to be either very opinionated in favor of school choice ("school choice! school choice! school choice!") or dead set against it ("it's a recipe for disaster!"). [For example... Diane Ravitch, an education historian, in her book The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, devotes a whole chapter to the problems with "choice" in education. Great read, by the way.]
Over the last several weeks I have come across numerous articles relating to school choice. Some articles have had to do with voucher programs, many have had to do with charter schools. A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal declared an "Indiana voucher victory." The article discussed how the Indiana state court, over the objections of the teachers' unions, upheld the validity of the state's "Choice Scholarship Program" to make vouchers available to certain eligible individuals (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324789504578384494175407924.html) (see also http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323605404578384542365022664.html). From my limited research, it seems that various states have experimented with some form of vouchers with mixed results. Charter schools have also had mixed results and mixed sentiments. Some have hailed charter schools as "exciting and demonstrably successful schools," and encouraged the federal government to play a more active role in their expansion (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324557804578376301012270328.html). Some have warned that "states will only replicate mediocrity if they expand charters too quickly" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/opinion/more-lessons-about-charter-schools.html). David Kirp, in his new book Improbable Scholars, asserts that "despite the hosannas for charters, the bulk of the research shows that, overall, they don't do a better job than traditional public schools." In his opinion, "[e]xemplary charter schools, like the national network of KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] academies and the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles and New York City, have indeed worked wonders . . . . But those top-drawer academies only serve a tiny minority of students . . . . Nationwide 3% of students attend charters, many of them ordinary or worse."
What I think becomes clear from the ongoing debate is that school choice cannot be viewed in black and white terms, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. Instead, the discussion needs to be more nuanced. Let's stick with the example of charter schools. While there are some charter school networks that have demonstrated a consistent track record of academic success and achievement, there are other charter schools that have failed. While it may be true that charter schools are subject to fewer restrictions that limit innovation, that doesn't mean that any charter school can flourish. As these articles suggest, by looking carefully at programs that have succeeded and programs that have failed, we get a sense that there are certain questions we need to be asking: How rigorous is the process for charter licensing in a particular state? What kind of oversight is in place to monitor progress? By what standards are we judging charter school success? To what extent is the city/state involved in providing support? Is the charter school being run by a proven "management organization"? Are non-performing charter schools being closed? Are academic gains being sustained over the long-term? In what ways is the quality of teaching being elevated in charter schools? Are charter schools modifying their approaches based on geographic factors? At the end of the day charter schools and voucher programs are still relatively new. Public schools have had ages to make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, implement changes, and make more mistakes. While I don't believe it makes sense to continue programs that are consistently failing, we do owe it to ourselves to continue exploring which non-traditional programs are working, understand why they are working, and figure out ways that those positive results can be replicated more broadly.