Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

It’s worth noting that to take our next step forward we actually have to go “back to the future”, back to 1995 and the inception of the “Bold” plan.  When we combine that concept with some of the more recent specific systemic change recommendations (like the Memorandum of Understanding for priority schools increasing local control), our path forward becomes clearer.  Local control with appropriately prepared CEOs (formerly known as principals) working with teachers and parents is essential for any significant improvement in education.  The Brookings Institution said that, to improve education, the power cords from school boards and bureaucracies to the school buildings had to be cut.  This isn’t because of incompetent administrators but because the current system cannot get the job done.  We no longer use horses to travel and transport goods, not because there is anything wrong with horses but because compared to the other various means of available transportation we would all be better off if the horses were put out to pasture.

If we don’t take the time and effort to first, fundamentally change the education system, then any seemingly beneficial attempts to improve things can have disastrous results.  Consider the current discussion about reducing the number of school districts in the state.  New York City and Los Angeles have only one school district each while the much smaller student population of the state of Delaware has nineteen.

Several elected officials have opposed the reduction of the number of school districts because of the significant increase in operating expenses they say would result due to the “leveling up” effect of teacher salary scales.  To support their contention, the officials refer to a 2002 study conducted in response to House Resolution 54.  That study only considered Kent and Sussex Counties and the conclusion was that consolidating into only one district in each county would increase operational expenses by 7.2 million dollars!  How could that be?

Without the “Bold” power shift of placing operational decision making in the hands of local building professionals, many functions would continue to be duplicated (and triplicated) at the district and state levels along with excess administration and support personnel.  The study used the existing state funding formula which was based on student enrollment.  The result was that, since student enrollment remained the same, literally everyone who was displaced by reducing the number of districts to one in each county was rehired by the single but much larger county districts.  There were no district cost reductions to offset the salary scale increases!  Reduced building operation expenses were ignored as were the possibilities of renting or selling office space or facilities.  Some legislators today still rely on the flawed conclusions of that study.

Our action plan over the next three to five years should have the goal of improving all public schools.  CEOs (formerly principals) will complete a professional administrative leadership program (a manual, The Art of Administration, has already been prepared) along with a mentoring component and an emphasis on developing a strong school culture.  As schools qualify for local control, they will have autonomy from any District or Delaware Department of Education requirements not mandated by state or federal law.  As more schools qualify for local operational control, the administrative responsibilities of district school boards and bureaucracies will be greatly diminished while parental contact with education decision makers is increased.  This now prepares the foundation for district reductions.

The expanded responsibilities of the CEOs include: 1) The authority to hire and dismiss all staff; 2) All programming inputs including but not limited to school calendar, school schedule, curriculum, instructional practices and methodology, program emphasis, textbooks and technology; 3) Marketing, long-range planning and continuous improvement efforts; 4) Support services including transportation, food, and maintenance; 5) Budget preparation, implementation, and expenditure control.  Surplus operating funds will be retained by the school for future use.

District school boards will have the following responsibilities relative to the operation of the local schools: 1) Hiring and performance evaluations of CEOs; 2) Approval of proposed annual budgets and major capital proposals; 3) Review of appeals of CEO decisions; 4) Operational support in areas such as legal, financial, personnel, facilities, marketing, etc. as requested by CEOs; 5) Facilitation of intra and inter district meetings of CEOs as requested by them.

It’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and settling for incremental improvements.  It’s time to address the gash below the water line.  It’s time to be “Bold”.

-by Ron Russo, Senior Fellow, CRI Center for Education Excellence

     Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

     Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School

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When the conversation turns to improving student learning, most people focus on curriculum, technology, evaluations, methodology, etc.  These and other items are critical to the teaching portion of student learning.  They certainly affect the outcomes of a school’s efforts.  But the 1995 systemic change plan (supported by the Governor, the Delaware Department of Education, and the business community) was unique and its interest was completely different.  Teaching focuses on “what” has to be done in the school building.  Education focuses on “how” the system will operate in order to get the “learning job” done.

Charter schools were not to be the sole answer to Delaware’s educational woes.  They were to be the mechanism for changing the existing school system which was perceived as an economic liability for the state.  The purpose of charter schools as stated in the law itself was to “…improve public education overall…”  It was to accomplish this goal by using a few charter schools to pilot the local control concept along with exploring new ways to improve student learning.  Using the charter school experience as a model, all traditional public schools were to be changed.  Implementing the local control concept meant that parents were closer than ever to the decision makers for their children’s education.  It meant that schools would be customized and not standardized.

To appreciate the seriousness of the local control issue, consider the overview of the charter school legislation prepared in 1995 by Michael Ferguson, State Superintendent of Public Schools and co-author of the Charter School Law.  He clearly described the transfer of decision-making power away from school boards and district bureaucracies and placing it with the local schools.  Excerpts from that document include: “Reliance on bureaucratic decisions would be a thing of the past.”  “…empower local communities further with additional decision-making authority.”  “…try new approaches to learning without bureaucratic restrictions.”  “…empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems that are facing their own schools.”  “Teachers…can minimize the bureaucracies that perhaps once stifled their creativity.”  “Parents and teachers are less restricted by decisions made at a district or state level, so they can focus their teaching methods, curriculum, and other policies around the needs of their particular students.”  In describing this shift of power to the state’s first charter school president, Ferguson said, “Except for federal laws and laws regarding health and safety you are free to do whatever you want but you have to be willing to accept responsibility for your actions.”

What would this “Bold” change look like?  Most current principals will require a transition period as cadres of building principals are prepared, mentored, and converted from traditional principals to CEOs (Chief Education Officers).  As individual schools wait for the conversion process they will operate as they currently do.  This will permit the transition to be as seamless as possible and provide for controlled growth.  The Caesar Rodney Institute is working on a draft piece of legislation to define the new responsibilities of the CEOs and the supportive and oversight responsibilities of district boards.  It is modeled after the Memorandum of Understanding designed by the state and intended to significantly improve the state’s lowest performing schools through local control.  It should be noted that it contains the statement that, “The School shall have autonomy from any District or Delaware Department of Education requirements not mandated by state or federal law.”  As suggested by the US Department of Education, evaluations must be based on performance and not compliance.

The benefit of the “Bold” shift surfaced at the 2014 Rodel Foundation April Education Event.  Andreas Scheleicher, a member of Rodel’s International Advisory Group, presented data to show that a school’s performance would be enhanced by giving the school greater autonomy coupled with involving teachers in the decision-making process (distributive leadership).  Any other significant changes to the existing bureaucratic school system must be preceded by a “Bold” power shift as the fundamental “first step”.  Discussions on the topic of reducing the number of school districts is a good example of the horrible erroneous conclusions that arise when this “first step” systemic change is ignored.  New York City and Los Angeles have one school district each while the much smaller Delaware has nineteen.  Should that number be reduced?

The importance of this first “Bold” step for other educational improvements will be covered when we consider the discussion on district reductions.  We will conclude with where we go from here in part 3, the next (first) step.

-by Ron Russo, Senior Fellow, CRI Center for Education Excellence

     Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

     Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School



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You don’t have to have school-age children or grandchildren to have an interest in Delaware’s public schools.  If you live or work in Delaware you have a great stake in the changes to the state’s public school system because education reform is all about Delaware’s economy.  It’s about attracting business and retaining business.  It’s about property values and taxes.  It’s about reducing crime rates, creating jobs, and population shifts (do you know anyone who moved to get into a different school district or, perhaps, moved across the state line?)

Let’s be clear about the difference between teaching and education.  Teaching is a profession with a special relationship between teachers and students.  This is similar to the legal and medical professions with their relationships between attorneys and clients, as well as, between doctors and patients.  Education, on the other hand, is a business like a law firm or a hospital.  It is the structure or system within which our schools operate to benefit our children and our communities.  It provides support and oversight for the teaching professionals who were hired to use their knowledge and talents to “get the teaching job done” and who are situated close to parents in the school buildings.  If anyone says to you “It’s all about the kids”, know that they are talking about teaching in the local schools, not education.

As a basic principle of business, is it better to have centralized, distant, decision makers calling the “operational shots” or would it be more productive and efficient to have decisions made at a local level by professionally prepared individuals who actually deal with situations daily?  For public education that question was answered in 1995 when the decision was made to move toward a more locally-controlled educational system.  It was a decision supported by the Governor, Delaware’s Department of Public Instruction (now Department of Education), and a business consortium (DuPont, Bell Atlantic, Hercules, Delmarva Power, Zeneca, and Christiana Care).  The existing public school “system” was seen as a liability.  The time for “tweaking” was over and the time for “Bold” action had arrived.

Many people, organizations, and other efforts (Rodel Foundation, Race to the Top, Vision 2025, etc.) have been working earnestly to improve student performance and we are seeing “upticks” in scores but is that enough?  USA TODAY on 7/18/17 ran a front page article on rising graduation rates.  The nation has hit a new high of 83% while, at the same time, SAT scores have dropped over 20 points.  The article concludes that students haven’t learned more but, rather, high school grades have been inflated.

There’s a new way of looking at an old problem.  Delaware’s public school system has been operating under a “horse and buggy” model of administration while a new system of local control and accountability was on the horizon.  A few charter schools were to pilot the new system and the lessons learned were to be used to change the traditional public schools.  Large numbers of charter schools were not the intended answer to Delaware’s education problems.  In the August 2015 issue of Delaware Today magazine it was stated that, “Charters proliferated in a way never intended or anticipated.”  A few charters were to be the change models for all traditional public schools.  Dr. Gary Miron, Executive Director of Western Michigan University’s Evaluation Center, conducted a three-year study of Delaware’s charter schools (2004 to 2007).  He was quoted by the Brookings Institution as saying, “Charter schools weren’t meant to duplicate the traditional schools.  They were going to be a lever for change…”

Why didn’t Delaware’s outdated education system change?  Well, everyone involved in the change effort was no longer around.  The Governor became our Senator, the State Superintendent who co-authored the Charter School Law passed away, and the consortium businesses were significantly transformed.  All six CEOs left their positions and several of the companies experienced major changes.  Bell Atlantic became Verizon, Hercules was taken over by Ashland, and Zeneca merged with Astra. The change agent (charter schools) was taken over by the very system it was supposed to change!

More specifics of the proposed reform effort will be presented in Part 2, the Bold Plan.

-by Ron Russo, Senior Fellow, CRI Center for Education Excellence

     Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

     Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School

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“I get no respect!” That was the signature comment of comedian Rodney Dangerfield as he complained that no one really understood him.  The same could be said for Delaware’s gifted and talented population.   Attempts to focus on their special needs are usually met with “Oh, they don’t need any help, they’ll be just fine.”  Really?

A 2008 Fordham Institute report found that, while low-achieving students have made gains under No Child Left Behind, advanced-learners were “languishing”.  A 1991 study at the University of Connecticut found that between 18 and 25% of gifted and talented students drop out of school.  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented in a project involving the University of Connecticut, the University of Virginia, and Yale University reported that the drop outs were 27% Black, 17.9% Hispanic and 50% came from the lowest socio-economic status quartile.  If not adequately challenged, gifted and talented students become bored, frustrated, unruly, and develop poor study habits that limit their potential.  The main reasons stated for dropping out included boredom, failures, and “not liking school”.

Gifted and talented students have special needs.  The Delaware Code (Title 14, Chapter 31) defines an exceptional child as “a child with a disability or a gifted and talented child”.  The law further states that the gifted and talented child, “may require differentiated educational programs or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize that individual’s full contribution to self and society.”  In Delaware, giftedness could include general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative productive thinking, leadership ability, visual and performing arts, as well as, psychomotor ability.

Many states have established special schools to address the unique needs of gifted and talented students and to take advantage of the synergistic effect of gathering such students together.  According to the National Association for Gifted Children, “Gifted students benefit from classroom interactions with peers at similar performance levels.”  Some individuals consider gathering gifted and talented students together as elitist.  In a publication of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education it was noted that no school official has argued that singling out talented athletes for sports team membership to the exclusion of others is elitist.  In fact, school districts and local community agencies go to great lengths applauding these athletes’ efforts and supporting them in their development.  Why not treat gifted and talented students the same way?

These special schools have admission requirements to assure that the special needs of the students will be met by the special programs being offered.  This “matching process” is similar to the college or employment application process.  Applicants to Delaware’s School for the Deaf, for example, must first establish that they are hearing impaired.  It wouldn’t make sense to accept a student with no hearing problems and reject a hearing impaired student.  Nationally recognized schools such as Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science in New York, etc. have acceptance criteria such as an admissions test, SAT scores, grades, recommendations, interviews, essays, etc.   The process is designed to determine if the student will benefit from the special and very challenging program being offered.

It’s important that our best and brightest are not at a disadvantage when competing against the top students from other states and countries.  In a February 2006 report from the University of Delaware Education Research and Development Center authored by Cheryl M. Ackerman, Ph.D. on Delaware’s Public Opinion of Education: Gifted Education, Finance, and Parent Involvement, the polls yielded interesting information.  “While 84% of Delawareans surveyed believe that gifted and talented students have special educational needs, only 14% indicated they thought these needs were being met in the public schools.  In addition, there was strong support (78%) to increase funding to create educational programs for gifted and talented children in Delaware.  In 2003 and 2005 nearly four out of five Delaware residents greatly or somewhat supported providing more funds to create such programs (79% and 78%, respectively).”

Maximizing the potential of gifted and talented students requires a new way of addressing their needs.  If we continue to use the old traditional methods it will result in a condition previously described by Albert Einstein.  According to Jan and Bob Davidson, founders of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, “The ideal solution for meeting the needs of gifted students is creating schools specifically for them.  These islands of excellence will remain few and far between until the nation as a whole recognizes the cost of squandering its brightest students’ talents and time.”

In their book, Genius Denied, the Davidsons commented on one of Delaware’s high schools that for several years has ranked in the top 100 best public schools in the nation according to Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.  In a report commissioned by the Delaware State Board of Education and the Delaware Department of Education conducted by Western Michigan University it was stated that the school’s students “are outperforming their counterparts at similarly matched traditional public schools” and “the school was able to advance the learning of their students at a faster rate than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.”  The Davidsons noted, “Gifted students thrive best in a place like this.  For their sake (gifted and talented) this country needs a lot more schools like (this one)”.  It seems our state may have already taken the first step to meet the special needs of Delaware’s Rodney Dangerfields.

In 2012, through a House Concurrent Resolution, a task force, chaired by Debora Hansen, Education Associate for Gifted and Talented Programs, was formed to address this issue.  Several recommendations were made that are in the process of implementation.  They include:  training all teachers to recognize giftedness (a Fordham Institute April 2017 article reported that students who come from poverty or are from a racial or ethnic group are 250% less likely to be identified for gifted programs), districts will have established programs to meet the needs of the gifted, teachers of the gifted and talented will obtain specific certification, etc.

Our educational goal should be to help every student to fully become what they are and not what we want them to be.  Maybe our goal should simply be to, “Max Every Child”.

Ron Russo, Senior Fellow, Caesar Rodney Institute

Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School

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At the ninth annual National Summit on Education Reform sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education held (November 30 to December 2) in Washington, D.C., Governor Jeb Bush, the keynote speaker, told the attendees that they had to, “Be big, be bold, or go home.”  Tweaking has a role to play in improving education but the current situation demands boldness.

In an article, “Choice, Charter Schools, and Education Reform”, written by William E. Manning, former president of the Red Clay Consolidated School District, he described the current Delaware school system as a “large bureaucracy” which he referred to as “the Blob”.  He also observed that, “…the system isn’t worth repair.” and “…let’s just pitch it and get a new one…” designed along certain principles. 

He recommended a confederation of independent schools each locally managed and free of regulations about who to hire and how to teach.  The schools would be evaluated only by performance data that would be shared with the public.  Since district responsibilities would be significantly reduced, the new system would need only a small administrative cadre.  Professional assistance would be provided to schools but only if they requested it.  Districts would offer,” …helpful resources rather than regulation.”  Teachers would be offered meaningful professional development as their status in the system would be elevated along with appropriate compensation.  These are most of the points.

The Caesar Rodney Institute is supporting a systemic change to our education bureaucracy called the “BOLD PLAN”.  It significantly alters the way the current education system operates by empowering the individual schools to make operational decisions to best serve their students.  The concept was introduced in Delaware in 1995 and was supported by the Governor, the Delaware Department of Education, and the business community.  A few charter schools were to pilot the idea and to serve as models for the traditional public schools.  Through a controlled growth plan and appropriate administrative development, every traditional public school would eventually have the same decision-making authority as a charter school with a much simplified district oversight function.

CRI’s BOLD PLAN incorporates the best features of the 1995 Charter School Law and the Memorandum of Understanding designed by Delaware’s DOE for Priority Schools.  If the changes proposed in the MOU were expected to raise the performance of the state’s lowest performing schools, why wouldn’t those changes be offered to all public schools?

The new system would recognize the importance of autonomy for local school leadership (principals and teachers answerable to parents), the need to focus on performance-based accountability, the value of customized education, and the critical role played by an established school culture of success.

BOLD legislation would specify areas of local decision-making.  Such areas would include: 1) Authority to hire and dismiss all staff; 2) All programing inputs (school calendar, schedule, curriculum aligned to Delaware standards, instructional practices and methodology, textbooks, technology, etc.); 3) Marketing and planning; 4) Support services including transportation, food, and maintenance; 5) Budget preparation and expenditure control with surplus operating funds retained by the school.  Schools will have autonomy from any district or Delaware DOE requirements not mandated by state or federal law.

District school board responsibilities would include: 1) Hiring and performance evaluations of Chief Education Officers (CEOs, formerly, principals); 2) Approval of proposed annual budgets and major capital projects; 3) Review of appeals of CEO decisions; 4) Operational support in areas such as legal, financial, personnel, facilities, etc. as requested by CEOs; 5) Facilitation of intra and inter district meetings of CEOs if requested by them.

For a state the size of Delaware, nineteen school districts is more than what is needed.  New York City and Los Angeles have many more students but each has only one school district.  Any cost savings could be used for additional expenses that may be incurred by the transition.

The BOLD PLAN complements Delaware’s other education improvement efforts (Visions, Races, etc.).  In fact, it may even complete them.  At the very first Vision 2015 meeting hosted by Dan Rich, then Provost of the University of Delaware, he ended the meeting by telling the attendees that if they wanted to improve Delaware’s public schools they had to be bold and, if they didn’t want to be bold, they should get out.  Hmmmm, it seems that Dan was way ahead of Jeb.

Ron Russo, Senior Fellow, Caesar Rodney Institute

Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School




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In reality, education reform is about economics. If done properly, it will attract/retain businesses, provide jobs, generate tax revenues, increase property values, reduce crime rates, and reduce the single largest item in the state’s budget. This was the direction taken in 1995 by Gov. Carper, State Superintendent Mike Ferguson, and a business consortium (DuPont, Bell Atlantic, Delmarva Power, Hercules, Zeneca, and Christiana Care) when they advocated for change in Delaware’s public education system.

To be clear, we must first distinguish between teaching and education. Teaching is a profession consisting mainly of teachers with special knowledge and training who exercise personal judgment in carrying out their responsibilities with students in the individual school buildings. The broader concept of education, however, is a business.

The 1995 concept of Delaware education reform was implemented in a pilot program at a school that proved to be very successful. In a study conducted by Dr. Gary Miron of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University at the request of the Delaware Department of Education and the State Board of Education, he observed that students at the new school were, “…outperforming their counterparts at similarly matched traditional public schools…”  The school achieved national recognition and generated a substantial operating surplus.

The essence of this bold plan was to shift operational decision-making authority from a school board and district into the individual school building. Control was now local and exercised by a principal working with teachers, answerable to parents with oversight and support provided by a board. Andreas Schleicher, a member of Rodel’s International Advisory Group, presented data at a Rodel Foundation Education Event to show that, when a school is given that type of autonomy, student performance is improved.

The significant reduction of district and board responsibilities should lead to a reduction of the number of school districts from 19 to 5 (1 in Sussex, 1 in Kent, 2 in New Castle, and 1 VoTech District.) New York City and Los Angeles each have only one school district.

Governor Carney’s first executive order creates a working group to consider a public-private partnership between Delaware’s Economic Development Office and the business community. Perhaps an education component should be added to the mix to reflect the previous business/education initiative. Recently the governor created a board to study government efficiency. Since education makes up about one-third of the state’s budget, if you have read this far in the article, you know this author’s position on education efficiency.

A reduced deficit, an improved economy, and higher student performance, now that’s a bold solution everyone can support.

Ronald R. Russo is a Senior Fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute, and the Founding President of the Charter School of Wilmington.


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State support for higher education is slipping with one large exception at the University of Delaware. One department, actually one individual, at the university is slated for a 38% increase according to the latest draft of the state budget.  This is in contrast to the state contribution for university operating expenses falling from about 21% in 2000 to about 12%, according to the University’s 2015 Investment Office Annual Report.

The currently proposed 2017 Fiscal Year proposed budget consists of fifty-nine pages of tables of budget numbers by department, and two hundred and twenty-six pages of “epilogue” language.  The epilogue pages are similar to footnotes and most of it is innocuous and a pretty boring read.  It can also be a place where bad policy goes to hide.

This may be the case with Section 285, page 199, which reads:

Section 285. Section 1 of this Act makes an appropriation to Higher Education, University of Delaware  (90-01-01) for the College of Arts and Sciences. Of this amount, $290,000 shall be allocated to the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy for research supervised by Dr. John Byrne as principal investigator

Yes, while other departments struggle as costs rise faster than state contributions, Dr. Byrne is expecting $290,000 to use as he sees fit, not even with direction for what he is researching.  The transfer effectively raises the earth sciences budget 38%.  Dr. Byrne and the University of Delaware have not responded to requests for comment.  A similar transfer was authorized in the last three year’s budgets but was designated more generally to the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy run by Dr. Byrne.

Unlike specific legislative bills there is no acknowledged sponsor of epilogue language.  However, Dr. Byrne and State Senator Harris McDowell (D – Wilmington North) have worked together for over a decade.  Senator McDowell is Co-Chairman of the Joint Finance Committee that writes the budget, and of the Senate Energy Committee.  Dr. Byrne and Senator McDowell jointly chaired the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) and its Oversight Committee over the last decade.  Dr. Byrne would be expected to consult with Senator McDowell in his role with the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy.  The obvious question is Dr. Byrne getting special treatment in the state budget because of his relationship with Senator McDowell.  Senator McDowell has not responded to requests for comment.

Senator Greg Lavelle (R – Sharpley) commented, “Based on the fact Dr. Byrne’s name is specifically mentioned in the epilogue language is a unique event, and we will be asking questions”.  He went on to say. “It would make one think that authority for use of the funds rests with Dr. Byrne and not the Center for Energy & Environmental Policy”, or the University.

David T. Stevenson, Policy Director

Center for Economic Policy


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The Washington State Supreme Court voted 6-3 to strike down charter schools, saying they “aren’t governed by elected boards and therefore not accountable to voters.” Read the decision here

Some background: In November 2012, voters approved a referendum to establish as many as 40 charter schools in the state. Charter school opponents became “Alarmed over the lack of local accountability and fiscal impacts of the Act” and filed a lawsuit against the network. The Washington State constitution says funding must be given to “common schools”, which were essentially defined as traditional public schools. The main complain is, charters and other school choice options are “selective” and force traditional schools to take “problem students.” The schools must also be “uniform”, or the same. If charters have lotteries and restrictions public schools do not have, then the schools are no longer uniform and charters cannot be provided public funding.

Delaware has a similar constitutional law which requires the government to fund a public education system, though it does not say the schools have to be run by the government, only provided. But the point is the same: these rules were set up not to ensure everyone an education, but to make sure as very few kids would be able to have an option besides the traditional public school. The way public schools are funded requires as many kids as possible to get into the buildings so the schools receive money.
Anti-charter proponents celebrated; at long last, they have succeeded in their quest to prevent students from going to a charter school. Most of these children will either end up home-schooled, sent to a private school which can take them, or, most likely, sent back to traditional public school where their attendance will ensure the schools get more taxpayer dollars and make any sort of education reform even more unlikely. Sadly, some adults are so opposed to school choice, the idea that a child might leave public school, that they openly cheer for the demise of alternative schools and education freedom just to make sure public schools (and those whose livelihood derives from public schools) keep getting money AND the status quo is maintained.
If you don’t think there is a problem yet, keep in mind SAT and ACT scores are flat, or even in decline. Here’s an article from left-leaning Slate acknowledging this.
The excuses abound: more students are taking the test (which is 1. dumb policy and 2. aren’t we supposed to improve everyone’s education? Isn’t that the whole point of No Child Left Behind?), Common Core State Standards are so stringent they are raising the bar too fast, the SAT and ACT are not fully aligned with student goals. The problem with this argument is, scores have declined for decades now in reading, and since 2006 writing scores declined across all ethnic and gender groups, and is now being eliminated from the SAT. Therefore, blaming Common Core for raising the bar and making the test now too difficult is a convenient overlook of the long-term problems we’ve had in this country.
What is not acknowledged is the stark reality: Most students just are not ready for college. Some ought not to go, but even then too many students are graduating high school lacking the basic skills needed to obtain a decent-paying job and career advancement opportunities. Of course, every entity except our current education system is to blame.
The same people who go after charters almost always include homeschooling and private schooling as a problem as well. Their attacks on charters and choice are little more than a thinly veiled effort to push all students to attend public schools, no matter how good or bad the school is run, no matter how ridiculous the government mandates are, or even irregardless of whether public education is right for every child.
Take the battle over HB 50, the Opt-Out bill. Supporters see this as a way for parents to have a say in their child’s education and keep their children from having to submit to a standardized test many feel is a problem. We agree- parents should be allowed to have a say in their child’s education, and absolutely students, especially in public schools, are over-tested. But what HB 50 supporters do not seem to understand is how futile their efforts are the long run, the “big picture” if you will. HB50 supporters seem to believe if you just get rid of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), somehow everything will be alright in the end. But they continue to believe in the system which gave them SBAC, they will find the bureaucracy will just provide a new program and standardized tests with similar, if only slightly different, objectives.  As long as they continue to keep the current system of education in place, there will be no real change.
Supporters of HB50 and anti-testing advocates also need to find a common alternative to Common Core/SBAC which will give principals the data they need to measure student progress and teacher competence. There are, in fact, teachers who are incompetent; admitting this is not “anti-teacher”, but a reality that no organization has complete competence from every single member. Not every student is motivated to learn on their own. Not every school is run well, or run poorly. As long as a method of measuring student progress is offered, education progress can be made.

Education Savings Accounts by themselves will not improve our education system, but they will move us forward when parents realize they do have the power to improve their children’s education if they want to. It’s parents, not school boards, not school districts, not teacher’s unions, not elected officials, not employees of the state Department of Education, not employees of the U.S. Department of Education, not private sector companies, who ought to have the final say in how their child is education. With a more competitive education system in place, one which empowers teachers and principals to do what is right, one which allows parents to have choices beyond what is in their zip code, education will improve.

And for those who say it won’t, look at our university system. We have arguably the best system on the planet, and there are plenty of public and private schools to go to. Oh, and public schools receive plenty of funding and are in no danger of going under, even though the government provides student loans to students who might go to a private school.

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pictured: Milton and Rose Friedman. photo: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Today CRI celebrates the 103rd birthday of Dr. Milton Friedman, a man who was ahead of his time in recognizing the need for school choice to be available to all children, so that more children would be able to obtain a quality education, suited to their needs, and not be forced to live in poverty merely because of how they were raised.

Dr. Friedman wrote about school choice in his book Free to Choose in 1980, and dedicated a full chapter to the idea that parents should be allowed to choose schools for their children. It was based on the market idea of economics- schools should not be seen as sacred government buildings dedicated to protecting adult’s jobs, but as forces which should strive to provide the best services to its “customers” (students), and if they fail to do this, then the school either needs to be reformed, or the students should be allowed to go to another school which better serves their needs. This choice should be allowed irregardless of the parents’ income, or residential zip code which too often constrains students, particularly poor students, in poorly performing schools with no way out.

Advocates of public education for all will insist that education should not be  “privatized” and left to the evils of “capitalism.” Yet notice how upper-middle class and upper-class families handle their children’s’ education- private schools, charter schools such as the Charter School of Wilmington, home school, boarding school (for the very wealthy), or top-performing public schools. Notice how wealthier families do not feel the need to be constrained by zip code? There is a reason for this. Despite bluster by opponents of parental choice about how “privatization” is evil, rich parents will choose that option because the school must compete for the parent’s tuition dollars. If the school performs poorly, or does not serve the child’s needs, the child will be removed from the school.

When a similar situation happens in public school, teacher’s union leaders, superintendents, and local politicians wax poetic about the need for more “investment.” Never mind that Delaware spends $23,000 a year per student. But, teachers in Delaware earn roughly $59,000 a year minus benefits. Clearly, most of the money spent per pupil doesn’t pay teachers, even as debates over raising teacher’s pay are played out in districts around the country. Where is this money going? Wherever it is, expect those getting this extra funding to fight back against any efforts to take their money away, no matter how weak their justification for more “investment” is.

The poor performance of too many public schools causes parents with the means to do so to pull their kids out of public school. The kids who are left are usually poor, come from dysfunctional homes or impoverished neighborhoods, and are not offered a clear pathway to success. Combined with the influx of new students coming from recently arriving immigrant families, many of whom live in homes where English is not the first language, and an endless number of “Visions”, mandates, and standardized tests, these schools are not going to be in position to best help the children.

The goal of school choice is not, as our opponents allege, to “dismantle” public education or somehow sell it to multinational corporations. The goal is to merely go back to basic principles of greed, ambition, and what motivates us. Monopolies, by definition (which is how a lot of public school districts are operated, especially in low-income areas), nearly always provide poor quality, high prices, and poor customer service, because the human need to do better falls flat when there is no reward for doing so. We do not suggest people intentionally fail or desire to see kids suffer, because we know the vast majority of teachers, counselors, principals, and other building staff sincerely want to see children do well. In fact, teachers and counselors, especially in private schools, make very little money because teaching is their passion. They know they will never get rich teaching or advising.

The problem is, there is a system in place which has made too many people too comfortable, too dependent on the system to continue, and too unwilling to consider alternatives out of fear of what might happen if there are serious changes to the status quo.

We point out that teens and young adults around the country choose colleges or learning institutions right for them. If the school is not a match, the student leaves and goes elsewhere, or goes to work or to the military. Federal student loans are offered to students who go to private colleges which compete with public ones. Yet public schools are still very much around. Clearly school choice for college has not destroyed public education, and it will not destroy public education in K-12. All that will happen is, some people who believe they have a guaranteed job might lose it unless they are pressured into the marketplace of ideas.

All this was Dr. Friedman’s vision: great schools for all, and a vision of the best, most competitive education system serving student’s needs, the way colleges compete. Today we honor a man whose foresight has inspired the rest of us to see nothing less than a great system of education, improving the economic opportunities of all students no matter their household income, neighborhood, or learning challenges.

Here’s to you, Dr. Friedman.

His quotes:

“Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that — a system of free choice — we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”
— CNBC Interview Transcript, March 2003

“It is only the tyranny of the status quo that leads us to take it for granted that in schooling, government monopoly is the best way for the government to achieve its objective.”
— “The School Choice Advocate,” January 2004

“Improved education is offering a hope of narrowing the gap between the less and more skilled workers, of fending off the prior prospect of a society divided between the “haves” and “have nots,” of a class society in which an educated elite provided welfare for a permanent class of unemployables.”
— “The School Choice Advocate,” July 1998

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