• Charter Government

4.10.08
Guy W. Midkiff

Several people have asked me about my opinion on Charter Government. At this point I am neutral on the topic. It does, however, concern me that almost everything I read on the internet is pro charter government.

It reminds me of a Mark Twain Quote: ” Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

I am pausing and reflecting.

Guy Midkiff

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Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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• Threat to Homeschooling

Threat to Homeschooling
By John Stossel
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

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The cat is finally out of the bag. A California appellate court, ruling that parents have no constitutional right to homeschool their children, pinned its decision on this ominous quotation from a 47-year-old case, “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train schoolchildren in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.”

There you have it; a primary purpose of government schools is to train schoolchildren “in loyalty to the state.” Somehow that protects “the public welfare” more than allowing parents to homeschool their children, even though homeschooled kids routinely outperform government-schooled kids academically. In 2006, homeschooled students had an average ACT composite score of 22.4. The national average was 21.1.

Justice H. Walter Croskey said, “California courts have held that under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children,” Justice Croskey said.

If that is the law in California, then Charles Dickens’s Mr. Bumble is right: “the law is a ass, a idiot.”

The California Constitution says, “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.”

That doesn’t appear to rule out homeschooling, unless you read it as a grant of absolute power to politicians.

Admittedly, the education code is vague. It requires children to attend public school or a private school (where certified teachers are not required). But they can also be taught by state-credentialed tutors. Homeschooling is not directly addressed. There’s disagreement over what that means. The court and the teachers’ union claim homeschooling is illegal unless the teaching parent has state credentials.

Homeschooling parents, many of whom have declared their homes private schools, say what they do is legal. Up till now that’s been fine with the California Department of Education. And California reportedly has 166,000 homeschoolers.

Nationwide, the National Center for Education Statistics says that in 2003 (the latest year for which it has a number), almost 1.1 million children were being homeschooled. The numbers keep increasing, so clearly homeschooling parents think their kids get something better at home than they would from public schools.

The Los Angeles Times isn’t sure where the state law stands. “If no such right [to homeschool] exists, as a court ruled, the Legislature should make it an option,” the newspaper’s editorial board said. The editorial wondered why parents who teach one or two children at home need credentials, while private-school teachers in classes full of kids don’t.

The danger in having the legislature clarify the law is that the legislature is controlled by politicians sympathetic to the teachers’ union, which despises homeschooling. “[H]ome-schoolers fear that any attempt to protect home-schooling would end up outlawing it,” writes Orange County Register columnist Steven Greenhut.

It reminds me of what New York Judge Gideon Tucker said in the Nineteenth Century, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

This particular case is muddied by suspicions of child abuse, but as the Times said, the court improperly “used a single example of possible child abuse to throw the book at tens of thousands of home schoolers.”

I think the state court is looking at the state Constitution upside down. The court finds no constitutional right to homeschool one’s children. But in a free country, people are free to do anything not expressly prohibited by law. If the Constitution is silent about homeschooling, then the right is reserved to the people. That’s how the Framers of the U.S. Constitution said things are supposed to work.

Last week, the appellate court surprised everyone by agreeing to rehear the case. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the judges “hinted at a re-evaluation of its entire Feb. 28 ruling by inviting written arguments from state and local education officials and teachers’ unions.”

On top of that, state Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell says he thinks homeschooling is legal and favors choice in education.

That’s reasonable news. But why is education the business of government? It’s taken for granted that the state is every child’s ultimate parent, but there’s no justification for that in a free society. Parents may not be perfect — some are pretty bad — but a cold, faceless bureaucracy is no better.

Let’s hope the court gets it right in June.

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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• Myth: Schools Need More Money

January 18, 2006

By John Stossel

“Stossel is an idiot who should be fired from ABC and sent back to elementary school to learn journalism.” “Stossel is a right-wing extremist ideologue.”

The hate mail is coming in to ABC over a TV special I did Friday (1/13). I suggested that public schools had plenty of money but were squandering it, because that’s what government monopolies do.

Many such comments came in after the National Education Association (NEA) informed its members about the special and claimed that I have a “documented history of blatant antagonism toward public schools.”

The NEA says public schools need more money. That’s the refrain heard in politicians’ speeches, ballot initiatives and maybe even in your child’s own classroom. At a union demonstration, teachers carried signs that said schools will only improve “when the schools have all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

Not enough money for education? It’s a myth.

The truth is, public schools are rolling in money. If you divide the U.S. Department of Education’s figure for total spending on K-12 education by the department’s count of K-12 students, it works out to about $10,000 per student.

Think about that! For a class of 25 kids, that’s $250,000 per classroom. This doesn’t include capital costs. Couldn’t you do much better than government schools with $250,000? You could hire several good teachers; I doubt you’d hire many bureaucrats. Government schools, like most monopolies, squander money.

America spends more on schooling than the vast majority of countries that outscore us on the international tests. But the bureaucrats still blame school failure on lack of funds, and demand more money.

In 1985, some of them got their wish. Kansas City, Mo., judge Russell Clark said the city’s predominately black schools were not “halfway decent,” and he ordered the government to spend billions more. Did the billions improve test scores? Did they hire better teachers, provide better books? Did the students learn anything?

Well, they learned how to waste lots of money.

The bureaucrats renovated school buildings, adding enormous gyms, an Olympic swimming pool, a robotics lab, TV studios, a zoo, a planetarium, and a wildlife sanctuary. They added intense instruction in foreign languages. They spent so much money that when they decided to bring more white kids to the city’s schools, they didn’t have to resort to busing. Instead, they paid for 120 taxis. Taxis!

What did spending billions more accomplish? The schools got worse. In 2000, five years and $2 billion later, the Kansas City school district failed 11 performance standards and lost its academic accreditation for the first time in the district’s history.

A study by two professors at the Hoover Institution a few years ago compared public and Catholic schools in three of New York City’s five boroughs. Parochial education outperformed the nation’s largest school system “in every instance,” they found — and it did it at less than half the cost per student.

“Everyone has been conned — you can give public schools all the money in America, and it will not be enough,” says Ben Chavis, a former public school principal who now runs the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, Calif. His school spends thousands less per student than Oakland’s government-run schools spend.

Chavis saves money by having students help clean the grounds and set up for lunch. “We don’t have a full-time janitor,” he told me. “We don’t have security guards. We don’t have computers. We don’t have a cafeteria staff.” Since Chavis took over four years ago, his school has gone from being among the worst middle schools in Oakland to the one where the kids get the best test scores. “I see my school as a business,” he said. “And my students are the shareholders. And the families are the shareholders. I have to provide them with something.”

©2005 JFS Productions, Inc. Distributed by Creators Syndicate

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com-1_18_06_JS.html
Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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• Stupid in America

John Stossel’s ‘Stupid in America’

How Lack of Choice Cheats Our Kids Out of a Good Education

By JOHN STOSSEL

Jan. 13, 2006 —

“Stupid in America” is a nasty title for a program about public education, but some nasty things are going on in America’s public schools and it’s about time we face up to it.

Kids at New York’s Abraham Lincoln High School told me their teachers are so dull students fall asleep in class. One student said, “You see kids all the time walking in the school smoking weed, you know. It’s a normal thing here.”

We tried to bring “20/20” cameras into New York City schools to see for ourselves and show you what’s going on in the schools, but officials wouldn’t allow it.

Washington, D.C., officials steered us to the best classrooms in their district.

We wanted to tape typical classrooms but were turned down in state after state.

Finally, school officials in Washington, D.C., allowed “20/20” to give cameras to a few students who were handpicked at two schools they’d handpicked. One was Woodrow Wilson High. Newsweek says it’s one of the best schools in America. Yet what the students taped didn’t inspire confidence.

One teacher didn’t have control over the kids. Another “20/20” student cameraman videotaped a boy dancing wildly with his shirt off, in front of his teacher.

If you’re like most American parents, you might think “These things don’t happen at my kid’s school.” A Gallup Poll survey showed 76 percent of Americans were completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids’ public school.

Education reformers like Kevin Chavous have a message for these parents: If you only knew.

Even though people in the suburbs might think their schools are great, Chavous says, “They’re not. That’s the thing and the test scores show that.”

Chavous and many other education professionals say Americans don’t know that their public schools, on the whole, just aren’t that good. Because without competition, parents don’t know what their kids might have had.

And while many people say, “We need to spend more money on our schools,” there actually isn’t a link between spending and student achievement.

Jay Greene, author of “Education Myths,” points out that “If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved … We’ve doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren’t better.”

He’s absolutely right. National graduation rates and achievement scores are flat, while spending on education has increased more than 100 percent since 1971. More money hasn’t helped American kids.

Ben Chavis is a former public school principal who now runs an alternative charter school in Oakland, Calif., that spends thousands of dollars less per student than the surrounding public schools. He laughs at the public schools’ complaints about money.

“That is the biggest lie in America. They waste money,” he said.

To save money, Chavis asks the students to do things like keep the grounds picked up and set up for their own lunch. For gym class, his students often just run laps around the block. All of this means there’s more money left over for teaching.

Even though he spends less money per student than the public schools do, Chavis pays his teachers more than what public school teachers earn. His school also thrives because the principal gets involved. Chavis shows up at every classroom and uses gimmicks like small cash payments for perfect attendance.

Since he took over four years ago, his school has gone from being among the worst in Oakland to being the best. His middle school has the highest test scores in the city.

“It’s not about the money,” he said.

He’s confident that even kids who come from broken families and poor families will do well in his school. “Give me the poor kids, and I will outperform the wealthy kids who live in the hills. And we do it,” he said.

Monopoly Kills Innovation and Cheats Kids

Chavis’s charter school is an example of how a little innovation can create a school that can change kids’ lives. You don’t get innovation without competition.

To give you an idea of how competitive American schools are and how U.S. students performed compared with their European counterparts, we gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium and in New Jersey.

Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks, and called them “stupid.”

We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey’s kids have test scores that are above average for America.

Lov Patel, the boy who got the highest score among the American students, told me, “I’m shocked, because it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.”

The Belgian students didn’t perform better because they’re smarter than American students. They performed better because their schools are better. At age 10, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age 15, when students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.

American schools don’t teach as well as schools in other countries because they are government monopolies, and monopolies don’t have much incentive to compete. In Belgium, by contrast, the money is attached to the kids — it’s a kind of voucher system. Government funds education — at many different kinds of schools — but if a school can’t attract students, it goes out of business.

Belgian school principal Kaat Vandensavel told us she works hard to impress parents.

She told us, “If we don’t offer them what they want for their child, they won’t come to our school.” She constantly improves the teaching, saying, “You can’t afford 10 teachers out of 160 that don’t do their work, because the clients will know, and won’t come to you again.”

“That’s normal in Western Europe,” Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told me. “If schools don’t perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S.”

Last week Florida’s Supreme Court shut down “opportunity scholarships,” Florida’s small attempt at competition. Public money can’t be spent on private schools, said the court, because the state constitution commands the funding only of “uniform . . . high-quality” schools. Government schools are neither uniform nor high-quality, and without competition, no new teaching plan or No Child Left Behind law will get the monopoly to serve its customers well.

The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from poorer countries that spend much less money on education, ranking behind not only Belgium but also Poland, the Czech Republic and South Korea.

This should come as no surprise if you remember that public education in the United States is a government monopoly. Don’t like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it’s good or bad. That’s why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse.

In New York City, it’s “just about impossible” to fire a bad teacher, says Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The new union contract offers some relief, but it’s still about 200 pages of bureaucracy. “We tolerate mediocrity,” said Klein, because “people get paid the same, whether they’re outstanding, average or way below average.”

Here’s just one example from New York City: It took years to fire a teacher who sent sexually oriented e-mails to “Cutie 101,” a 16-year-old student. Klein said, “He hasn’t taught, but we have had to pay him, because that’s what’s required under the contract.”

Only after six years of litigation were they able to fire him. In the meantime, they paid the teacher more than $300,000. Klein said he employs dozens of teachers who he’s afraid to let near the kids, so he has them sit in what are called rubber rooms. This year he will spend $20 million dollars to warehouse teachers in five rubber rooms. It’s an alternative to firing them. In the last four years, only two teachers out of 80,000 were fired for incompetence. Klein’s office says the new contract will make it easier to get rid of sex offenders, but it will still be difficult to fire incompetent teachers.

When I confronted Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, she said, “They [the NYC school board] just don’t want to do the work that’s entailed.” But the “work that’s entailed” is so onerous that most principals just have just given up, or gotten bad teachers to transfer to another school. They even have a name for it: “the dance of the lemons.”

Zoned Out of a Good Education

I talked with 18-year-old Dorian Cain in South Carolina, who was still struggling to read a single sentence in a first-grade level book when I met him. Although his public schools had spent nearly $100,000 on him over 12 years, he still couldn’t read.

So “20/20” sent Dorian to a private learning center, Sylvan, to see if teachers there could teach Dorian to read when the South Carolina public schools failed to.

Using computers and workbooks, Dorian’s reading went up two grade levels — after just 72 hours of instruction.

His mother, Gena Cain, is thrilled with Dorian’s progress but disappointed with his public schools. “With Sylvan, it’s a huge improvement. And they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re on point. But I can’t say the same for the public schools,” she said.

Lying to Beat the System

Gena Cain, like most parents, doesn’t have a choice which public school her kids attend. She followed the rules, and her son paid the price.

In San Jose, Calif., some parents break the rules to get their kids into Fremont Union schools. They’re so much better than neighboring schools that parents sometimes cheat to get their kids in by pretending to live in the school district.

“We have maybe hundreds of kids who are here illegally, under false pretenses,” said District Superintendent Steve Rowley.

Inspector John Lozano works for the district going door-to-door to check if kids really live where they say they live. And even seeing that a child is present at a particular address isn’t enough. Lozano says he needs to look inside the house to make sure the student really lives there.

Think about what he’s doing. The school district police send him into your daughter’s bedroom. He even goes through drawers and closets if he has to.

At one house he found a computer and some teen magazines and pictures of a student with her friends. He decided that student passed the residency test.

But a grandmother who listed an address in his district is caught. The people who answered the door when Lozano visited told him she didn’t live there.

Two days later, I talked with the grandmother who tried to get her grandson into the Fremont schools.

“I was actually crying. I was crying in front of this 14-year-old. Why can’t they just let parents to get in the school of their choice?” she asked.

Why can’t she make a choice? It’s sad that school officials force her to go to the black market to get her grandson a better education. After we started calling the school, the school did decide to let him stay in the district.

School-Choice Proponents Meet Resistance

When the Sanford family moved from Charleston to Columbia, S.C., the family had a big concern: Where would the kids go to school? In most places, you must attend the public school in the zone where you live, but the middle school near the Sanford’s new home was rated below average.

It turned out, however, that this didn’t pose a problem for this family, because the reason the Sanfords moved to Columbia was that Mark Sanford had been elected governor. He and his wife were invited to send their kids to schools in better districts.

Sanford realized how unfair the system was. “If you can buy a $250,000 or $300,000 house, you’re gonna get some great public education,” Gov. Sanford said. Or if you have political connections.

The Sanfords decided it was unfair to take advantage of their position as “first family” and ended up sending their kids to private school. “It’s too important to me to sacrifice their education. I get one shot at it. If I don’t pay very close attention to how my boys get educated then I’ve lost an opportunity to make them the best they can be in this world,” Jenny Sanford said.

The governor then proposed giving every parent in South Carolina that kind of choice, regardless of where they lived or whether they made a lot of money. He said state tax credits should help parents pay for private schools. Then they would have a choice.

“The public has to know that there’s an alternative there. It’s just like, do you get a Sprint phone or an AT&T phone,” Chavous said.

He’s right. When monopolies rule, there is little choice, and little gets done. In America the phone company was once a government-supported monopoly. All the phones were black, and all the calls expensive. With competition, things have changed — for the better. We pay less for phone calls. If we’re unhappy with our phone service, we switch companies.

Why can’t kids benefit from similar competition in education?

“People expect and demand choice in every other area of their life,” Sanford said.

The governor announced his plan last year and many parents cheered the idea, but school boards, teachers unions and politicians objected. PTAs even sent kids home with a letter saying, “Contact your legislator. How can we spend state money on something that hasn’t been proven?”

A lot of people say education tax credits and vouchers are a terrible idea, that they’ll drain money from public schools and give it to private ones.

Last week’s Florida court ruling against vouchers came after teacher Ruth Holmes Cameron and advocacy groups brought a suit to block the program.

“To say that competition is going to improve education? It’s just not gonna work. You know competition is not for children. It’s not for human beings. It’s not for public education. It never has been, it never will be,” Holmes said.

Why not? Would you keep going back to a restaurant that served you a bad meal? Or a barber that gave you a bad haircut? What if the government assigned you to “your” grocery store. The store wouldn’t have to compete for your business, and it would soon sell spoiled milk or stock only high profit items. Real estate agencies would sell houses advertising “neighborhood with a good grocery store.” That’s insane, and yet that’s what America does with public schools.

Chavous, who has worked to get more school choice in Washington, D.C., said, “Choice to me is the only way. I believe that we can force the system from an external vantage point to change itself. It will never change itself from within. … Unless there is some competition infused in the equation, unless that occurs, then they know they have a captive monopoly that they can continue to dominate.”

Competition inspires people to do what we didn’t think we could do. If people got to choose their kids’ school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, science schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows what else. If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom.

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 3:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

• Education: More $ Not The Answer

State of the Union January/February 2008 Atlantic Monthly

A modest proposal to fix the schools

by Matt Miller

First, Kill All the School Boards

It wasn’t just the slate and pencil on every desk, or the absence of daily beatings. As Horace Mann sat in a Leipzig classroom in the summer of 1843, it was the entire Prussian system of schools that impressed him. Mann was six years into the work as Massachusetts secretary of education that would earn him lasting fame as the “father of public education.” He had sailed from Boston to England several weeks earlier with his new wife, combining a European honeymoon with educational fact-finding. In England, the couple had been startled by the luxury and refinement of the upper classes, which exceeded anything they had seen in America and stood in stark contrast to the poverty and ignorance of the masses. If the United States was to avoid this awful chasm and the social upheaval it seemed sure to create, he thought, education was the answer. Now he was seeing firsthand the Prussian schools that were the talk of reformers on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Massachusetts, Mann’s vision of “common schools,” publicly funded and attended by all, represented an inspiring democratic advance over the state’s hodgepodge of privately funded and charity schools. But beyond using the bully pulpit, Mann had little power to make his vision a reality. Prussia, by contrast, had a system designed from the center. School attendance was compulsory. Teachers were trained at national institutes with the same care that went into training military officers. Their enthusiasm for their subjects was contagious, and their devotion to students evoked reciprocal affection and respect, making Boston’s routine resort to classroom whippings seem barbaric.

Mann also admired Prussia’s rigorous national curriculum and tests. The results spoke for themselves: illiteracy had been vanquished. To be sure, Prussian schools sought to create obedient subjects of the kaiser—hardly Mann’s aim. Yet the lessons were undeniable, and Mann returned home determined to share what he had seen. In the seventh of his legendary “Annual Reports” on education to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he touted the benefits of a national system and cautioned against the “calamities which result … from leaving this most important of all the functions of a government to chance.”

Mann’s epiphany that summer put him on the wrong side of America’s tradition of radical localism when it came to schools. And although his efforts in the years that followed made Massachusetts a model for taxpayer-funded schools and state-sponsored teacher training, the obsession with local control—not incidentally, an almost uniquely American obsession—still dominates U.S. education to this day. For much of the 150 or so years between Mann’s era and now, the system served us adequately: during that time, we extended more schooling to more people than any nation had before and rose to superpower status. But let’s look at what local control gives us today, in the “flat” world in which our students will have to compete.

The United States spends more than nearly every other nation on schools, but out of 29 developed countries in a 2003 assessment, we ranked 24th in math and in problem-solving, 18th in science, and 15th in reading. Half of all black and Latino students in the U.S. don’t graduate on time (or ever) from high school. As of 2005, about 70 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in reading. By the end of eighth grade, what passes for a math curriculum in America is two years behind that of other countries.

Dismal fact after dismal fact; by now, they are hardly news. But in the 25 years since the landmark report A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm about our educational mediocrity, America’s response has been scattershot and ineffective, orchestrated mainly by some 15,000 school districts acting alone, with help more recently from the states. It’s as if after Pearl Harbor, FDR had suggested we prepare for war through the uncoordinated efforts of thousands of small factories; they’d know what kinds of planes and tanks were needed, right?

When you look at what local control of education has wrought, the conclusion is inescapable: we must carry Mann’s insights to their logical end and nationalize our schools, to some degree. But before delving into the details of why and how, let’s back up for a moment and consider what brought us to this pass.

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CLICK THE MAP ABOVE to enlarge
130,000 Little Red Schoolhouses

Our system is, more than anything, an artifact of our Colonial past. For the religious dissenters who came to the New World, literacy was essential to religious freedom, enabling them to teach their own beliefs. Religion and schooling moved in tandem across the Colonies. Many people who didn’t like what the local minister was preaching would move on and found their own church, and generally their own school.

This preference for local control of education dovetailed with the broader ethos of the American Revolution and the Founders’ distrust of distant, centralized authority. Education was left out of the Constitution; in the 10th Amendment, it is one of the unnamed powers reserved for the states, which in turn passed it on to local communities. Eventually the United States would have 130,000 school districts, most of them served by a one-room school. These little red schoolhouses, funded primarily through local property taxes, became the iconic symbols of democratic American learning.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nothing really challenged this basic structure. Eventually many rural districts were consolidated, and the states assumed a greater role in school funding; since the 1960s, the federal government has offered modest financial aid to poorer districts as well. But neither these steps, nor the standards-based reform movement inspired by A Nation at Risk, brought significant change.

Many reformers across the political spectrum agree that local control has become a disaster for our schools. But the case against it is almost never articulated. Public officials are loath to take on powerful school-board associations and teachers’ unions; foundations and advocacy groups, who must work with the boards and unions, also pull their punches. For these reasons, as well as our natural preference for having things done nearby, support for local control still lingers, largely unexamined, among the public.

No problem left behind

Why is local control such a failure when applied to our schools? After all, political decentralization has often served America well, allowing decisions to be made close to where their impact would be felt. But in education, it has spawned several crippling problems:

No way to know how children are doing. “We’re two decades into the standards movement in this country, and standards are still different by classroom, by school, by district, and by state,” says Tom Vander Ark, who headed the education program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from 1999 through 2006. “Most teachers in America still pretty much teach whatever they want.”

If you thought President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation was fixing these problems, think again. True, NCLB requires states to establish standards in core subjects and to test children in grades 3–8 annually, with the aim of making all students “proficient” by 2014. But by leaving standards and definitions of “proficiency” to state discretion, it has actually made matters worse. The Proficiency Illusion, a report released in October by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, details how. “‘Proficiency’ varies wildly from state to state, with ‘passing scores’ ranging from the 6th percentile to the 77th,” the researchers found:

Congress erred big-time when NCLB assigned each state to set its own standards and devise and score its own tests … this study underscores the folly of a big modern nation, worried about its global competitiveness, nodding with approval as Wisconsin sets its eighth-grade reading passing level at the 14th percentile while South Carolina sets its at the 71st percentile.

The lack of uniform evaluation creates a “tremendous risk of delusion about how well children are actually doing,” says Chris Cerf, the deputy chancellor of schools in New York City. That delusion makes it far more difficult to enact reforms—and even to know where reforms are needed. “Schools may get an award from their state for high performance, and under federal guidelines they may be targeted for closure for low performance,” Vander Ark says. This happens in California, he told me, all the time.

Stunted R&D. Local control has kept education from attracting the research and development that drives progress, because benefits of scale are absent. There are some 15,000 curriculum departments in this country—one for every district. None of them can afford to invest in deeply understanding what works best when it comes to teaching reading to English-language learners, or using computers to develop customized strategies for students with different learning styles. Local-control advocates would damn the federal government if it tried to take on such things. Perhaps more important, the private sector generally won’t pursue them, either. Purchasing decisions are made by a complex mix of classroom, school, and school board officials. The more complicated and fragmented the sale that a company has to make, the less willing it is to invest in product research and development.

Incompetent school boards and union dominance. “In the first place, God made idiots,” Mark Twain once wrote. “This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.” Things don’t appear to have improved much since Twain’s time. “The job has become more difficult, more complicated, and more political, and as a result, it’s driven out many of the good candidates,” Vander Ark says. “So while teachers’ unions have become more sophisticated and have smarter people who are better-equipped and -prepared at the table, the quality of school-board members, particularly in urban areas, has decreased.” Board members routinely spend their time on minor matters, from mid-level personnel decisions to bus routes. “The tradition goes back to the rural era, where the school board hired the schoolmarm and oversaw the repair of the roof, looked into the stove in the room, and deliberated on every detail of operating the schools,” says Michael Kirst, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University. “A lot of big-city school boards still do these kinds of things.” Because of Progressive-era reforms meant to get school boards out of “politics,” most urban school districts are independent, beyond the reach of mayors and city councils. Usually elected in off-year races that few people vote in or even notice, school boards are, in effect, accountable to no one.

Local control essentially surrenders power over the schools to the teachers’ unions. Union money and mobilization are often decisive in board elections. And local unions have hefty intellectual and political backing from their state and national affiliates. Even when they’re not in the unions’ pockets, in other words, school boards are outmatched.

The unions are adept at negotiating new advantages for their members, spreading their negotiating strategies to other districts in the state, and getting these advantages embodied in state and sometimes federal law as well. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for superintendents to change staffing, compensation, curriculum, and other policies. Principals, for their part, are compliance machines, spending their days making sure that federal, state, and district programs are implemented. Meanwhile, common-sense reforms, like offering higher pay to attract teachers to underserved specialties such as math, science, and special education, can’t get traction, because the unions say no.

Financial inequity. The dirty little secret of local control is the enormous tax advantage it confers on better-off Americans: communities with high property wealth can tax themselves at low rates and still generate far more dollars per pupil than poor communities taxing themselves heavily. This wasn’t always the case: in the 19th century, property taxes were rightly seen as the fairest way to pay for education, since property was the main form of wealth, and the rich and poor tended to live near one another. But the rise of commuter suburbs since World War II led to economically segregated communities; today, the spending gap between districts can be thousands of dollars per pupil.

But local taxes represent only 44 percent of overall school funding; the spending gaps between states, which contribute 47 percent of total spending, account for most of the financial inequity. Perversely, Title I, the federal aid program enacted in the 1960s to boost poor schools, has widened the gaps, because it distributes money largely according to how much states are already spending.

what would horace do?

I asked Marc Tucker, the head of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (a 2006 bipartisan panel that called for an overhaul of the education system), how he convinces people that local control is hobbling our schools. He said he asks a simple question: If we have the second-most-expensive K–12 system of all those measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but consistently perform between the middle and the bottom of the pack, shouldn’t we examine the systems of countries that spend less and get better results? “I then point out that the system of local control that we have is almost unique,” Tucker says. “One then has to defend a practice that is uncharacteristic of the countries with the best performance.

“It’s an industrial-benchmarking argument,” he adds.

Horace Mann wouldn’t have used this jargon, but his thinking was much the same. In his time, the challenge was to embrace a bigger role for the state; today, the challenge is to embrace a bigger role for the federal government in standards, funding, and other arenas.

The usual explanation for why national standards won’t fly is that the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.” But that’s changing. Two Republican former secretaries of education, Rod Paige and William Bennett, now support national standards and tests, writing in The Washington Post: “In a world of fierce economic competition, we can’t afford to pretend that the current system is getting us where we need to go.” On the Democratic side, John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton and the current president of the Center for American Progress (where I’m a senior fellow), told me that he believes the public is far ahead of the established political wisdom, which holds that the only safe way to discuss national standards is to stipulate that they are “optional” or “voluntary”—in other words, not “national” at all.

Recent polling suggests he’s right. Two surveys conducted for the education campaign Strong American Schools, which I advised in 2006, found that a majority of Americans think there should be uniform national standards. Most proponents suggest we start by establishing standards and tests in grades 3–12 in the core subjects—reading, math, and science—and leave more-controversial subjects, such as history, until we have gotten our feet wet.

According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the federal government accounts for 9 percent, or $42 billion, of our K–12 spending. If we’re serious about improving our schools, and especially about raising up the lowest, Uncle Sam’s contribution must rise to 25 or 30 percent of the total (a shift President Nixon considered). Goodwin Liu, a University of California at Berkeley law professor who has studied school financing, suggests that a higher federal contribution could be used in part to bring all states up to a certain minimum per-pupil funding. It could also, in my view, fund conditional grants to boost school performance. For example, federal aid could be offered to raise teachers’ salaries in poor schools, provided that states or districts take measures such as linking pay to performance and deferring or eliminating tenure. Big grants might be given to states that adopt new national standards, making those standards “voluntary” but hard to refuse. The government also needs to invest much more heavily in research. It now spends $28 billion annually on research at the National Institutes of Health, but only $260 million—not even 1 percent of that amount—on R&D for education.

What of school boards? In an ideal world, we would scrap them—especially in big cities, where most poor children live. That’s the impulse behind a growing drive for mayoral control of schools. New York and Boston have used mayoral authority to sustain what are among the most far-reaching reform agendas in the country, including more-rigorous curricula and a focus on better teaching and school leadership. Of course, the chances of eliminating school boards anytime soon are nil. But we can at least recast and limit their role.

In all of these efforts, we must understand one paradox: only by transcending local control can we create genuine autonomy for our schools. “If you visit schools in many other parts of the world,” Marc Tucker says, “you’re struck almost immediately … by a sense of autonomy on the part of the school staff and principal that you don’t find in the United States.” Research in 46 countries by Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich has shown that setting clear external standards while granting real discretion to schools in how to meet them is the most effective way to run a system. We need to give schools one set of national expectations, free educators and parents to collaborate locally in whatever ways work, and get everything else out of the way.

Nationalizing our schools even a little goes against every cultural tradition we have, save the one that matters most: our capacity to renew ourselves to meet new challenges. Once upon a time a national role in retirement funding was anathema; then suddenly, after the Depression, we had Social Security. Once, a federal role in health care would have been rejected as socialism; now, federal money accounts for half of what we spend on health care. We started down this road on schooling a long time ago. Time now to finish the journey.

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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