Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is Choice Such a Good Idea After All?

Here in Indiana the legislature is in full gear, with Republican majorities in both houses pushing through an ambitious agenda, some of which is overdue and some of which scares me to death.

Education reform is at the top of the list. I'm not sure where I stand on all of the issues. The one thing that is obvious to me is that we need longer school days and longer school years to be competitive with the rest of the industrialized world, but investing one additional penny is about the only thing that isn't on anyone's agenda this year.

My wife and I are fortunate to be able to send our son to an excellent private Episcopal school just down the block. Unlike a lot of bloggers and posters, I don't "resent" paying both tuition and taxes. My neighbors who don't have kids pay taxes for public schools, for the common good; why should I not have to pay for those schools just because I choose not to use them?

By the same token, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of sending public dollars to private schools, in particular church-sponsored schools, by means of vouchers. Even though our son's school could no doubt benefit from the increased enrollment and revenue. The voucher legislation I've seen would work on a sliding scale, providing 75% of the cost of tuition to the neediest families, and only 25% to those who's household incomes approached six figures. My guess is, that in practice there would be a lot more solid middle-class households taking advantage of the 25% voucher, than struggling single moms able to use the 75% voucher for multiple kids. Like the home mortgage deduction and the tax-free-income status of employer-provided health insurance, this would be another transfer of wealth to the more affluent half of us, to the incalculable detriment of the other half.

All this activity is causing me to rethink one reform that I thought worked for everyone: the idea of open enrollment. For several years, one of the few things that Indianapolis Public Schools had going for it was the opportunity for every school in the district to develop its own specialties and magnet programs (math/science, humanities, fine arts, health sciences, etc.), and for students to be able to attend any high school in the district that best suited their interests and strengths. The growing number of free public charter schools expanded those choices. And now, with the recent reform of school funding made necessary by property tax caps, families across the state are free to explore the possibilities of the greener school districts on the other side of the fence.

Except. For the past three years, I've been participating in the Common Goal mentoring program at the New Tech magnet program at Arsenal Tech. In fact, I wrote about it for The Urban Times here.

After one year, I felt pretty good about what I was doing. I still think the program has merit and I'm not giving up, because "Quitting is Not an Option" is the message we're trying to get out to the kids in a school district that, three years ago, had a 31% graduation rate.

But the fact is, only one of the five freshman that I started mentoring in the fall of 2008 is still at that school. Only one appears to have dropped out. Three others, to the best of the school's knowledge, were moved by their families to other schools, inside or outside the IPS district. Moreover, only one of the four "new" students who was added to my group when the sophomore year began is still there. Four of the six good kids I meet with now are new to the school this year, if not this semester; and at least two of them have been to at least three different schools in their two and a half years of high school.

I can't believe that this kind of turnover is conducive to good education, regardless of the quality or uniqueness of any specific system, methodology, or teacher. I'm no apologist for the status quo or for the education lobby, but I don't see how the teachers accomplish anything in this environment.

Is it possible that we have students and families taking advantage of the opportunity to change at will, on the assumption that "the problem" is the teacher or the principal that they don't get along with ... instead of something within their control, or something that they might benefit by working through?

Maybe unlimited choice isn't such a good thing. Maybe, for all the flack the IHSAA takes for being arbitrary and heavy-handed about applying their transfer rules, they're on to something. Where, in the avalanche of change that we are demanding in public education this year, is some element of commitment on the part of the students and families?

1 comment:

  1. Ron, nice blog. We almost sent our kids to a private school and choose not to. There was and is many pros and cons. But, for us it was more of a faith discussion.
    But, at the end of the day, being a free market kind of guy, I firmly beleive competiton works in all areas of life to produce the best results.
    Just handing out money, doesn't. If you have any question about this is the area of education, do a study of where the Kansas City school systems have been and are presently, even with a Judge taking them over at one time. Couple years ago, two schools in the district voted to leave the district and go to the Independence district and currently, Southwest High School (one of the top schools at one time and now a "Charter") is a war zone. If you live in the Southwest of that district and don't have the means, your kids are stuck there! A voucher to go where ever you wish would help those folks for sure.
    In this area we see first hand that money from the goverment does not solve problems.
    I have always wondered what the results would be if each district was a school trying to get kids like a business, and the Dept of Ed was done away with, and that budget was devided by the number of students and given to the respective school boards to do what they see fit.
    I could go on and on.