Tag Archives: school funding

StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding. 


What the U.S. Constitution Can Teach Us About For-Profit Charter Schools

I’m proud to be a liberal. My blood boils when I read about massive ExxonMobil profits, comically large bonuses for CEOs, and corporate corruption. It follows, then, that I have a strong visceral aversion to for-profit charter charter schools–to handing our tax dollars and the crucial task of education to corporations.

Yet I struggle to think of a real argument against it. Vague anti-corporate sentiment and concerns about potential corruption, though understandable, are not strong reasons for opposition. In fact, for-profit companies have led to incredible innovations in transportation, medicine, agriculture, and many other industries. Like it or not, the opportunity for financial gain is an effective motivator. Why not bring it to education?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this. As it says in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have power to. . . promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The purpose of this “exclusive right”–which we today call copyright or patent– is to guarantee financial gain for those who make useful innovations. Without this, the framers imply, the “progress of science and useful arts” would be slowed. Keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution granted very few powers to Congress, and in general the framers were skeptical of a large federal government. But promising financial reward for useful invention was considered crucial enough to be worthy for inclusion.

It is clear that our public education system, especially as funding continues to plummet, is desperate for this type of innovation. We should offer the opportunity for financial gain–an idea literally as old as the U.S. itself–to encourage this. Our country has countless brilliant minds working to improve countless industries; we need more of them in education. And what better way to bring them over than a chance for profit? Visceral discomfort with the idea isn’t a good enough reason to cast aside a potentially great opportunity for our nation’s kids. The framers of our Constitution would have given their blessing.

School Effectiveness, Not Labels

Last month, I went to the ER for a head injury I sustained while playing basketball. (Caught an elbow in the forehead, though naturally I told people that I hit my head on the rim while dunking.) Though the wait was inconvenient and the co-pay hefty, it was a necessary cost: I needed stitches, and  had neither the skill nor the resources to take care of it myself.

Education works in basically the same way, though hopefully with fewer lidocaine injections. Society has decided that an educated community is a public good that is worth paying for. And since it is both impractical and inefficient for individuals to be responsible for educating their own kids, we pay for somebody else to do it for us; we call these public schools. Sure, we have to fork over the money and deal with some inconvenience, like transporting our kids to and from school. But we agree that it’s a necessary cost.

That is why I am continually frustrated by arguments about whether charter schools are public schools. Besides being a ridiculous argument in the first place–even the NEA definition of charters calls them “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools”–it is a distraction from what actually matters in education: whether kids are learning.

The basic reasoning for public education is that it is in the community’s interest to shoulder the cost of educating children, just as it was in my interest to shoulder the cost of an ER visit to get medical treatment. Expanding use of charter schools does not alter that model in any way; all kids are still receiving an education on the taxpayer’s dime. Is the money diverted from the established bureaucracy? Sure. But it isn’t dismantling or destroying anything except old appropriation decisions.

Instead of wasting our time on labels, we should be ensuring that schools are effective. Whether traditional public, charter, or alternative, if schools aren’t educating our kids there is no reason to have public education at all. If I weren’t confident that a doctor could have stitched up my head, I wouldn’t have bothered to go. Yet as education in this country continues to hemorrhage,  people are more concerned about the names of the stitches than whether they can stop the bleeding.

Philly Ain’t Helsinki: Debunking the U.S.-Finland Education Comparison

In the current ed reform debate, it is increasingly common to hear calls for the U.S. to emulate Finland’s high-achieving public education system. Finland has no regular standardized testing and  no core curriculum, yet they consistently have impressive results on international assessments; it follows, then, that we should avoid those reforms in the U.S. Though convenient, the comparison is flawed.

Don’t get me wrong–Finland is a lovely country. When I visited last summer I was extremely impressed by the pleasant citizenry, wonderful scenery, well-organized cities, and good food. (Though the language is not very friendly to English speakers. And the beer left something to be desired.) But it is a very different country than the U.S., and so we should be wary of simply importing their educational system as readily as some of their other exports. Their model is appropriate for their country, not for ours. A few key differences:

1) Well-being of children from birth is central to their welfare state. All kids have healthcare and access to full-day daycare and preschool, ensuring that all kids come in prepared for the first day of primary school.

2) School funding. All schools in Finland are funded at the same per-pupil rate. There is no such thing as a “rich” or “poor” school district. The budget crises that we are witnessing in places like Philadelphia simply do not happen.

3) Education as a human right. Education is free for Finnish citizens through college, and college students even receive a stipend. As a result, a quality, long-term education for everyone is part of the Finnish culture.

4) Respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers are highly respected, and accordingly becoming a teacher is a difficult, rigorous, and competitive process: only 1 in 10 are accepted to primary school teaching programs. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where education is routinely ranked as one of the easiest, least selective college majors. It follows that teachers are more consistently smart, talented, and competent, making the best of their impressive autonomy.

I’m not saying that Finland’s model is not one to which we should aspire. I, for one, would love to see the U.S. replicate Finland in the ways mentioned above. But, given present differences in demographics, funding, value on education, and perception of teachers–all of which are important factors  in educational success–it is not reasonable to simply suggest that we bring the Finnish system here. All teachers know that different kids from different circumstances have different needs. Why wouldn’t the same be true for countries?

Urgency and Ed Reform

In today’s WaPo, Matt Miller offers a useful critique of Obama and Romney’s respective education reform proposals. Instead of removing poor teachers, we should focus on attracting good ones:

What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs?

In other words, the teaching profession has been devalued—in both salary and society—to the extent that our nation’s talented college graduates generally will turn towards other professions. Though “fast-track” certification programs like Teach for America (in which I participated) have helped a bit, the harsh and uncomfortable reality remains: our country’s youth don’t become teachers if they can find something better. And they usually can.

Miller is right to say  this; he asks the right questions and provides useful answers. What he fails to grasp is the urgency of the failures of public education in America, particularly in cities. Though I agree that the upcoming retirement of thousands of teachers provides a great opportunity to improve teacher quality, we can’t just sit idly by until that happens. Expanding charters, “turning around” or closing failing schools, and pushing for accountability should be used in conjunction with our pursuit of systemic change. Though perhaps politically complicated, the strategies are not mutually exclusive. As we discuss how to change the system, let’s not lose sight of the thousands of kids who have no choice but to attend terrible schools each day. Stubborn ideals should not lead us to write off an entire generation of children.

Self-Interest and the Difficulty of School Integration

In the NYT this weekend, David L. Kirp examines the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education in recognition of its 58th anniversary. Many schools that were integrated after the decision have since been re-segregated due to recent Court decisions and the absence of a vocal support for integration. And that is a shame, because integration worked:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did.

Given that evidence, Kirp argues, we should move away from many of the common education reforms of today–charter expansion, closing failing schools, teacher accountability–and focus instead on integration. That is ultimately the answer.

I don’t disagree–I think integrating our schools, particularly between cities and  the suburbs areas, would be a great way to improve our system. But how do we actually do that? This is where Kirp’s argument is insufficient. As he writes:

In theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount of integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries or opening magnet schools attractive to both minority and white students. But the hostile majority on the Supreme Court and the absence of a vocal pro-integration constituency make integration’s revival a near impossibility.

Indeed, “in theory it’s possible” for that to happen. But let’s think about what would need to happen. White parents whose children attend great schools in the suburbs would have to vote in favor of integration. This means their tax dollars would be diverted away from their own children and towards lower-income children from the city; furthermore, children who previously attended bad schools in the city would likely be higher need and require even more resources.. I’m not saying that this will never happen, and I hope that someday it will. But it is foolhardy to base a plan for education reform on people voting against their self-interest.

Once again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. A massive redistribution of resources spent on education–which is essentially what integration would accomplish–would definitely be the ideal solution to educational inequity in this country. If students in Philadelphia could instead attend schools in Lower Merion, they would have dramatically different lives. But they can’t. And until that changes, we need to do everything we can to help them. Making small, incremental improvements to our schools and pursuing, massive, systemic change are not mutually exclusive.

Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand Philly

Today in EdWeek, education scholar and commentator Diane Ravitch joined the fray of alarmist outsiders lamenting the impending “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Her concern stems from the recently released “blueprint” for school reorganization in Philadelphia  which includes closing 64 schools—they will presumably either be reopened as charters or consolidated–and dividing the district into “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit organizations. Though her EdWeek piece (and comment on it on her blog) carry a dramatic, passionate tone, she proves little more than her proficiency at the use of logical fallacy.

Ravitch considers this reorganization to amount to an “abandon[ment]” and “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Money quotes:

The death of public education in any city or district is a tragedy. Education is a public responsibility. If some choose to pay to go to non-public schools, they have the right to do so. But for the vast majority of our kids, public education is their right and our responsibility. Any who whittle away that sense of public responsibility are doing damage to our society and our kids and our future.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

In other words, she argues that education ought to be a public responsibility, and shirking that responsibility would be damaging to society. That is a statement with which no one in involved in the Philadelphia reorganization disagrees. How could they? This is a  classic “straw man” argument, which misrepresents an opponent’s position. (Her claim that privatization of education could result in privatization of other areas in the second passage I quoted is also a perfect use of the “slippery slope” fallacy. Actually, I am somewhat thankful–it is a great example to use when I teach critical reading of nonfiction in my classes.)

In truth, Ravitch is ignoring a basic reality: the reorganization in Philadelphia does not remove the public responsibility for education. Whether she likes it or not,  charter schools are still public schools. They are funded by tax dollars, and students do not have to pay to go there. Sure, some charter organizations receive additional funding from private donations. But is more money in the system a bad thing? All students in the city will still attend school regardless of their financial situation. The means of implementing the public responsibility for education is changing; the responsibility itself is not.

Now, Ravitch is spot-on in her argument that inadequate funding in the district is largely to blame for the dire situation in Philly. But given her prominent position in the education reform world, she needs to double-check her facts and logic before resorting to alarmism. Otherwise we might as well  just hand her a bell and a sign: