Friday, April 13, 2012

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Stand for School Choice — and Randi Weingarten’s Disingenuousness

 Here's RiShawn Biddle's critique of Randi's disagreement with the CFR report:

But don't think that Weingarten (or for that matter Darling-Hammond, whose general thoughtfulness on teacher quality reform is limited by her unwillingness to challenge her traditionalist colleagues) signed on to any of that. Declaring in her dissent that choice options "have not proven themselves to be sustainable or systemic ways to improve our schools", Weingarten tosses out the zero-sum-game argument, proclaiming that vouchers, charters, and other options will do little more than "deplete badly needed resources from our public schools" as well as (she insinuates) divide society and the common good. From where she sits, any championing of school choice and Parent Power (along with efforts to overhaul the traditional systems of teacher compensation and performance management that have long-sustained the influence and coffers of the AFT and National Education Association) will lead to the end of public education and American democracy. Wrote Weingarten: "A move away from that public system could do greater harm to our national security and common bonds than nothing at all.

Certainly Weingarten neglects to mention that charter schools are just as much public schools as traditional district counterparts; the fact that they are managed by non-profit and for-profit operators (including AFT affiliates in Boston and New York City) means little since they are often subjected to similar levels of oversight (and, unlike traditional district schools) can be shut down for academic and fiscal failure. But that's to be expected. Just because the AFT likes to play up the fact that its legendary leader Albert Shanker helped launch the charter school movement doesn't mean they actually want charters to exist in any meaningful way.

The bigger problem with Weingarten's argument is logically false argument that somehow school choice can't be allowed in American public education at all. From Weingarten's perspective, public education should remain a system of district bureaucracies that control where students go and the quality of education they receive (with AFT and NEA locals influencing how districts operate through collective bargaining agreements, the spending of their campaign largesse, and lobbying in statehouses). But it plenty of industrialized nations, public education is more about funding a wide array of educational opportunities from which families can choose than about maintaining failing and mediocre bureaucracies. In Canada, provinces such as Ontario, Catholic schools are fully funded out of state coffers, while Alberta has embraced the charter school concept. In Ireland, the government funds Catholic schools as well as multi-denominational private schools. Belgium and the Netherlands has long ago moved to a system of public financing of educational options; in the former, "free schools" operated by groups affiliated with the Catholic Church serve larger number of students than government-run schools. Australia also partially funds private schools, with families of children attending them paying the remainder of the costs out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile Weingarten's argument that somehow school choice harms "democracy" and frays "common bonds" falls flat on its face. Forget her ignorance of the reality that the United States is a pluralistic society in which, save for common agreement over liberty, freedom, and a Democratic republican form of government, there is plenty of diversity of — and disagreement over — everything from culture to religiosity. A system of publicly funding educational options through school choice would do little to harm democracy because federal, state, and local governments — all elected by citizens who also benefit from choice — would still be in charge of how those dollars are spent. While the schools may offer their own approaches to providing students with high-quality education, state and federal governments would still be able to hold those schools accountable for results.

This can already be seen in Milwaukee, home to the nation's oldest school voucher program. Since the launch of the Milwaukee voucher program 21 years ago, Wisconsin officials adopted rules that required private schools accepting voucher students to meet state curriculum standards, and use the state's assessments to monitor student (and school) performance. This had results. As noted in the University of Arkansas' latest study on the Milwaukee voucher effort, students using vouchers saw even greater gains in student achievement than earlier generations of students funded by it; it may have also improved the overall quality of educational options throughout the city.

Meanwhile Weingarten's argument that choice will somehow fray common bonds is also off-target. If anything, by expanding choice, states can actually create systems of educational financing that can foster truly public schools that serve the public and deal with the diversity within American society.


The Council on Foreign Relations' Stand for School Choice — and Randi Weingarten's Disingenuousness

March 23, 2012 No Comments by RiShawn Biddle

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