Mathis on school choice: What does the research say?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William J. Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont superintendent. He is a member of the Vermont State Board of Education. The views expressed are his own.

School choice has again blipped onto the Vermont political screen. The federal government is bringing pressure on the states to adopt choice schemes, primarily in the form of charter schools. Vested interest think tanks, heavily supported by the deep pockets of the Gates, Broad and Friedman foundations, have been the strong but less visible pushers.

Vermont’s historical choice system was founded on very different principles than today’s ideological agenda. In the 19th century, the aim was to provide public education to all Vermont children and the existing patchwork of private academies and religious schools were folded into a universal system. The purpose of the current movement, however, is to replace public governance with a privatized capitalistic model. The Vermont constitution says the purpose of education is to advance the common good (increase virtue and prevent vice). Thus, providing education as a market commodity fundamentally changes the democratic purpose of education.

Today, school choice models are promoted as “reforms” that will cure the so-called “failings” of schools. In reality, the nation’s failing schools are heavily concentrated in low-income neighborhoods with a high proportion of children of color who attend heavily under-resourced schools. Nevertheless, school choice is touted as a way of solving school problems without actually dealing with the real problems.

The nation now has more than a quarter-century’s experience and knowledge on the various types of school choice. The National Education Policy Center enlisted 18 of the nation’s scholars to examine various facets of school choice and tell us what the research says. From their forthcoming book, here’s a preview:

•Academic achievement: Setting aside the so-called “research” by groups advancing or opposing choice, the legitimate peer-reviewed research shows, in general, there isn’t any difference in test scores. There are good choice schools and bad ones. They are distributed in much the same way as traditional public schools. To be sure, politicians and advocates cherry-pick exemplary schools that fit their predilections. But if higher test scores is the objective, school choice is not a very effective way of getting there.

•Integration and segregation: School choice systems segregate by race and by income. There are two Vermont studies that confirm the national pattern. This is a dangerous direction for a nation already demonstrating the greatest wealth segregation of any developed country. Schools are the one remaining institution that melds all elements of society. In an increasingly cyber-fragmented world with big business loyal to their international bottom line, holding our culture together becomes more difficult, more critical – and more important.

•Educational innovation: A common sound-bite is that schools have to be more innovative in the 21st century. However, schools of choice are no more innovative than traditional schools. The reason is that parents, as a group, want traditional schools that embrace traditional values. The paradox is the cyberworld is coming but parents and communities also want conservators of fundamental values.

•Centralization and school closing effects: “Money follows the child” means that when a child chooses another town’s school, then the home town must pay the tuition. This can have a devastating effect on small schools, taxpayers and smaller villages. Parents tend to choose the bigger town where Mom or Dad works — which solves the huge Vermont transportation problem. (As one researcher wryly noted, “School choice exists for those who can get there.”) Small schools are more economically fragile and the loss of only a few students could be the tipping point. Taxpayers must maintain their local school as well as pay tuition, or close the village school. Parent and town involvement suffers as students become part of some more distant and larger school.

•Financial effects: If “money follows the child,” there has to be limits on the amount the state pays. The problem arises when parents take the funding allocation as a subsidy for an expensive private school. This is not an option for less affluent parents. It is exactly this kind of partially funded voucher system that led to huge inequities and resulted in riots in Chile.

Although not seen in Vermont as yet, a cautionary tale is playing out on the national stage. Charter management organizations have taken over a number of schools, cut the number of teachers, reduced salaries, hired less qualified teachers and increased the money pocketed by the big business owners. Students are “enrolled” who can’t be found when the auditors came around. The phantom student problem is acute for cyber-education. In a high profile case, K-12 Inc is currently being sued for “deceptive recruiting” practices. These raise complex auditing and legal questions.

On first examination, school choice schemes appear as an appealing exercise in personal freedom. In many cases, a different school, a new opportunity or a special program may make this the wise and correct decision for an individual student. Such alternative adjustments must be part of all public schools. When sweeping choice schemes are contemplated, however, an array of issues are raised that can inadvertently change the entire nature and purpose of education, and thus society – and not always for the common good.

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  • Michelle Longley

    You say, “The Vermont constitution says the purpose of education is to advance the common good” …and I say to you, that our current system is no longer following this constitution; if anything, with all the testing and striving for better scores, it’s pulling students back not advancing them forward; making it all the more important to put a new system in place and fast! Is it Charter Schools, Private Schools or Public School Choice? Probably not, but they are the best band-aids being offered so we have to fight for one of them to begin to adopt change. Sure, a full public reform on a state level, as they did in Finland or other countries, would be great but we prideful American’s have a way to go yet before we crash completely within this system….just as they did (theirs was what…a 30 year reform?)….it’s a long time for all of our “need-results-now” folks in the education department to wait. πŸ˜€

    I’ve shared our personal story a lot over the past few weeks but briefly I’ll do it again… I have no doubt that small schools could just as easily see an increase in population (not a decrease) and that Public School Choice can work for the majority if we open up to the possibilities.

    We left a well off town with a “decent” school and moved to a smaller town to give our children a different environment to see if it improved their learning/behavior, and it did…drastically. To do that though, we had to close down our house in one town (still paying mortgage on with help from family) and pay rent in another town so our children could go to school there. To find a small town with cheap enough rent though, our houses are 2 hours apart….School Choice would have allowed us to give our kids what they needed (a smaller environment) without putting a financial burden on us paying for 2 homes (on only 1 income mind you)…difficult in the best of economic times. To have paid rent where we were living on top of a mortgage would have been too much….but the sacrifice has been worth it….Did we choose the best school in the city where my husband works? NO! We chose the small school in Northern Vermont where my kids have been respected, allowed to learn at a more reasonable pace, treated as individuals and are actually finding things they have passion for to help see them through those subjects that aren’t their favorite…..for once they are enjoying school and thriving.

    Rich folks will always have the ability to have a better education, to have better opportunities….we don’t all need to be equal and if they want to take the money the state/town offers them for public education and add their own to it to give their kids something better, then that should be the right and choice of all of us (we don’t really want to get into the dictating of where people should spend their own money…that’s for sure!!) ….we just need to offer the rest of the population the chance to have as good an education as public funds can offer…. What we’re lacking today (which was around in the 19th century, Mathis) is a real value of education….today there is NO value in education. There is no value in family or community… (and I know, I know some of you will take offense, but I mean the over-all population, not all individuals) These values were critical in making our education system what it was then, so there is really no comparison today.

    I’d also like you to consider the Health Field for a moment in comparison….Community Health Centers, with some pretty amazing Doctors, situate themselves in the poorest parts of communities to help those greatest in need…. not to make the most money or to work with the “best, healthiest” clients, but to really help those who need it the most. Dentists and counselors all do the same thing…Social workers dedicate their lives to this cause, even lawyers take on important cases pro-Bono…so there’s no good reason to believe that those who get “left behind” are going to receive a worse education….

    There are teachers that go into the worst parts of the largest cities around the world to try and make a difference in kids that the majority of the world has given up on….when you right an article like this…you forget about some of the most giving, generous people out there who dedicate their lives to serving others less fortunate…I’d say that those schools are pretty damn lucky and those “less fortunate” kids are not always the ones missing out by not having “all” the options in the world. Money can only buy so much….

    I’d say, have the micro-managing administration back off a little and allow the teachers the freedom to reach the children, who they know best, and creatively teach them in a way that allows students to learn. Many teachers who choose to work for Charter Schools or Private Schools are doing so for this freedom, and at least in the case of VT Independent Schools, are doing so exceedingly well with limited, yet invaluable resources. Let’s bring this practice into public schools; and I’d say go ask any Preschool teacher if you have any questions on how to teach a large group on limited resources and still have them learning…. my hat is off to many of these amazing people!!

    Just my 2 cents in the middle of the night!! πŸ˜€

  • Alex Barnham

    Here is what the research says…loud and clear. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    1. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, for every 100,000 Americans, 748 citizens are incarcerated.

    2. The cost per prisoner in a state prison in California is over $50,000 per year and that does not include the cost of using the judicial system to put them in prison.

    3. β€œ[W]e are well past the point of diminishing returns,” says a report by the Pew Center on the States.

    As I see it, children are mandated to be in the public school system at a cost of $5,000 per year. How much money will it take to teach children about the laws and why and how not to end up in jail? Has our public school system failed? Do the research and then get off the couch and do something.

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