Last week I shared some of my history with school choice and posed some questions for readers to consider about the use of public tax dollars, accountability, and what we should expect of them. Now let me tell you what I think…
First of all, I should say that my beliefs about school choice continue to evolve. This is simply the truth, not a cop out. It’s been an ongoing process of trying to refine my thinking.
I also need to own up to being a purebred K-12 public school product myself. Before coming to Marquette, every college and university I’ve attended or held faculty rank has also been public. All things considered, public education has been very good to me.
That’s probably why, early in my Milwaukee stint, I found myself not so much favoring or opposed to school choice as not fully grasping the need for it. Over time, though, I couldn’t ignore the community’s growing disenchantment with our public school system.
It cemented for me why alternatives would not only seem appealing to Milwaukee residents, but probably necessary. My stark impression of the local education scene is that many MPS students have not enjoyed anywhere near the same level of luck with K-12 public education as I did.
My Two Unwavering Beliefs
What I can say with complete certainty is that there are two beliefs I’ve had about school choice from the beginning that have never wavered, namely:
- It’s really hard to establish and sustain a high quality school.
- School choice is fine as long as the choices are good ones.
Let me explain.
An experience I had shortly after I arrived here drove home the first point for me in a new way. Because I’ve worked closely with schools for decades, the instructional challenges were well known to me. But I was virtually clueless when it came to the pragmatic side of running a school.
Asked to sit on the board of a local charter school, I got my first intense look at a comprehensive school budget. Suffice it to say that I was blown away. My 30 years of experience as an educator had not prepared me for the gigantic volume of opaque line items staring back at me. The huge costs of facilities and transportation were one thing, but the sheer breadth of expenses staggered me.
It was right then that I realized, both unmistakably and indelibly, the enormous complexity of the “business” of schooling. If I had thought that creating and sustaining a school was hard before, then that budget wake-up call left me with zero doubt.
A related lesson I’ve learned, and not a small one, is that even a phenomenal talent and passion for educating does not fully qualify individuals or groups to operate schools. Pedagogical skill and a commitment to children represent highly desirable and necessary conditions for success, but they’re not sufficient ones. Fiscal expertise must also be in place, especially because choice schools typically have limited resources.
My second enduring point about the need for good choices requires little explanation. Children suffer when schools don’t measure up. It’s fair to say that some new choice schools in Milwaukee started badly, got worse, and failed miserably. Kids in those schools were clearly disserviced, and their parents and guardians innocently shared in the blame.
Even among the choice schools that survived the initial hurdles, too many of them offered a subpar education. Parents and guardians who selected these schools unknowingly put their children’s futures at risk, too. And here’s the worst part — some of them are probably still in business.
This prospect puts a sobering logical twist in play. Fiscal stability is a necessary condition for a successful school, but it’s not sufficient either. Schools must be sound both academically and financially or they are dysfunctional — end of story.
Thankfully, some choice and charter schools have flourished, and I have a genuine appreciation for them. My understanding, though, is that many of the successful choice “start-ups” were already well established private schools that needed or wanted the additional funding. In fairness (or at least for the sake of argument), let’s assume that some truly brand new schools met all of the challenges they confronted and have triumphed.
Either way, there just doesn’t seem to be nearly enough high quality choice schools. As I see it, for the school choice movement to exert a profound impact, a critical mass of good choices is essential.
Over time it’s been important for me to distinguish in my own head between school choice as a matter of principle versus practice. On principle, a powerful argument can be made that poor kids and families should have the option to choose schools, too.
Framed this way, school choice becomes a social justice issue, which leaves me far more open to it. But the democratic principle alone doesn’t compel me to accept any school that is not good in practice.
In our College of Education at Marquette, we believe that all children are entitled to the highest quality education possible. My own take is that this sentiment ought to hold true regardless of how the education is delivered. Whether the schools are public, charter, choice, private, faith-based, virtual, or even home-based, if they’re effective and nurturing, then I applaud and support them. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that no urban area can thrive in the longterm if its public school system falls short.
Purpose, Performance, and Transparency
Personally I believe that publicly funded charter and choice schools must meet certain criteria to justify their existence. Most of all, they must either:
- offer a unique and specialized curriculum (like schools for the arts, foreign languages, science and technology, etc.)
- produce achievement results at least as good as public schools and preferably better.
Although I’ll concede that other factors might justify the existence of an alternative school, these two are non-negotiable in my mind.
An associated debate centers on whether alternative, public-funded schools should have to report their performance. This debate is destined to continue, because it centers on the hotly contested principle of regulation. My own belief is that all schools must be accountable, although some reasonable lines need to be drawn to preserve the spirit of a private school education.
In any case, I think it’s fair to say that, when it comes to choice schools, freedom from regulation has not routinely resulted in them being of higher quality, nor has the competition they’ve created led to significantly better public schools per se.
As accountability goes, it stands to reason that high performing schools would want to tout their successes. Presumably they’d have nothing to hide or fear. But I’ve noted that even they have reservations about public reporting. Their fear is that the standardized test scores of the disadvantaged children they serve may not be compelling enough to argue for continuance.
Weaker schools, on the other hand, deserve to be fearful and should encounter increased scrutiny. Honestly, I see this question as an ethical one. Children and families need to be protected from lousy schools. In my opinion, all poorly performing schools, public or private, ought to be endangered, and if they can’t fix their problems, then they should be sent packing.
Choice, Greed, and Politics
There are two concluding points that I feel the need to mention. One is that we must somehow manage to weed out those entities who start schools for the express purpose of making money. Seriously, who doesn’t think financial gain motivates at least some of the individuals and groups trying to start choice schools?
The per pupil funding no doubt sounds mighty good to these entrepreneurs. Ironically, presuming that they’d even care — the most beautifully run schools will struggle to provide a high quality education with the current levels of financial support. The bottom line is that the pursuit of profit cannot be permitted to trump children’s educational welfare.
My final point is that unhealthy politics of any kind condemn schools to failure. The political climate for education in Milwaukee can only be characterized as volatile. Our public schools are under constant assault, and even the choice movement now stands irreparably fractured with longtime allies at each other’s throats. Where will it end?
Most regrettable of all, while the adult political combatants wage war, the kids suffer. Clearly they deserve much, much better. My fondest hope is that, as a community responsible for stewarding our children’s futures, we’ll start making educational choices that truly benefit them — and soon.