Monday, April 07, 2008

School Choice – Now More Than Ever

This week's revelation that 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities have high school graduation rates below 50% surely saddened many. But it surprised few people attuned to the state of U.S. public education. Proponents of education choice have long believed that dropout rates fall when families can pick the schools best suited for their children.

So news that Sol Stern, a veteran advocate of school choice, is having second thoughts about the ability of market forces to improve education outcomes is noteworthy. Mr. Stern explains his change of heart in the current issue of the indispensable City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Manhattan Institute. And his revised views on the school choice movement warrant a response.

Inside of two decades, charter school enrollment in the U.S. has climbed to 1.1 million from zero. Two tiny voucher programs in Maine and Vermont blossomed into 21 programs in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Tuition tax credits, once puny and rare, are now sizeable and commonplace. The idea that teacher pay should be based on performance, not just seniority, is gaining ground. Not bad for a small band of education reformers facing skepticism from the liberal media and outright hostility from well-funded, politically connected heavies like the National Education Association.

So I was surprised to see these impressive school choice gains diminished by Mr. Stern, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute who has spent so many years chronicling them. Mr. Stern does allow that "the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged," liberating low-income families from failing schools. But he says that social-change movements need to be attentive to "facts on the ground" and that recent developments "suggest that markets in education may not be a panacea – and that we should re-examine the direction of school reform."

As an example, Mr. Stern cites the Milwaukee voucher program. "Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tied to any urban school district in the country, Milwaukee's public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates," he writes. "Most voucher students are still benefitting, true; but no 'Milwaukee miracle,' no transformation of the public schools has taken place."

Seeking panaceas and miracles is setting the bar for success unreasonably high. The most immediate goal of market-oriented reformers is to offer respite to poor families with kids in the worst schools. And Mr. Stern acknowledges that those students with access to vouchers and charters are in a much better situation than they would be otherwise.

His larger argument is that choice has been ineffective in improving surrounding public school systems, but that is a dubious conclusion at best. No fewer than four authoritative studies of Milwaukee's voucher program exist, the most recent published last year by Martin Carnoy of Stanford University. While none of the Milwaukee studies have found huge improvements from the existence of a voucher program, all concluded that public schools are responding to the competitive pressure and do better.

Similarly, studies of Florida's A+ program, which gives students in chronically failing public schools a voucher to attend a private school, found that the threat of losing students caused public schools to improve performance on the state assessment test. There are four such studies available, and all show a positive competitive response from the public school system.

Other research has assessed how competition from charter schools affects traditional public schools. The University of Washington's National Charter School Research Project identified 12 such surveys. Seven showed significant positive effects from competition; three showed no effect; and two showed negative effects. Once again a preponderance of the evidence suggests that expanded choice and competition improve educational outcomes.

In Mr. Stern's view, education reformers would do better to de-emphasize choice and focus instead on improving curriculums and teacher quality. The reality is that the former fuels the latter. Researchers at the Urban Institute, by no means a bastion of conservatives, recently collected information on how public schools respond to competitive pressure. It turns out that one response is to put in place instructional reforms, including more rigorous standards. In other words, instructional reform is a product of competitive pressure and is less likely to occur in the absence of school choice.

It's also worth noting that public school choice has always existed in the form of residential choice. The problem is that not all families have the means to move into the neighborhoods with better schools. One goal of reformers is to make choice more equitable. The fact that vouchers and charters have been unable to completely transform the system inside of two decades does not mean public education is immune to market forces. School choice is clearly making a difference for the better, which justifies expanding it, not abandoning it.


'Bullying' Australian high school stops fingerprinting kids

An Australian high school has stopped fingerprinting its children, on receiving a caning from the country’s press. Ku-ring-gai High, in Sydney’s prosperous North Shore, is accused of bullying its charges into scanning their fingerprints for an attendance monitoring system it is trialing.

Under New South Wales rules, parents must be told in advance if their children are to be fingerprinted. Also, schools must not ID children whose parents object by way of a letter of exemption. But Ku-ring-gai interpreted the rules liberally: one parent told The Australian that his daughter “could not leave an exam room until she provided her fingerprint". Another claimed her two children were “intimidated” into getting their fingerprints scanned despite presenting exemption letters.

Ku-ring-gai High may have breached procedural and privacy guidelines, education officials say. But the school could return to fingerprinting, when it gets its house in order, according to local news reports.


Germany still persecuting home schoolers

The parents of Melissa Busekros, the German teen who was taken by police from her home and placed in a psychiatric ward because she was homeschooled, now are being billed by the government for the cost of her forced stay, according to attorneys who are working on her case. WND originally reported more than a year ago when Busekros, then 15, was taken into custody from in front of her shocked family by police officers bearing the following court order: "The relevant Youth Welfare Office is hereby instructed and authorized to bring the child, if necessary by force, to a hearing and may obtain police support for this purpose."

She eventually was detained for several months, until she turned 16 and was subject to different German laws, when she simply left the custodial foster family where she had been ordered to stay and returned to her parents, Hubert and Gudrun Busekros, and her five siblings. Court officials later said they would not challenge her actions, but the underlying court case stemming from allegations from education and social service officials over the teen's welfare has remained unresolved.

It now is being taken both to the European Court of Human Rights as well as the European Parliament by officials with the European Center for Law and Justice. There, legal counsel Roger Kiska told WND that the case is being attacked on two fronts, a direct challenge to the legal rulings in the case at the Court of Human Rights, and a political attack in the European Parliament, which cannot change Germany's homeschooling laws but can apply pressure to make the government more tolerant.

Meanwhile, the local government involved in the case is demanding payment from the Busekros family of an undetermined bill for Melissa's stay from February through April 2007 when she was in the custody of authorities and social services in Germany. The family, after paying for its own legal counsel throughout much of the battle with government officials, has no resources left to pay the fees, which could reach an amount equal to thousands of dollars, and Kiska said they are simply another aggravating factor in the case.

The appeals process will be long and complicated, but the ECLJ hopes it will result in a more appropriate response on the part of German officials to those who seek to homeschool. Kiska said the goal is that children no longer would be taken into custody by SWAT teams. "The measures used by the government in this case reached extreme measures," he said. "There were several police cars sent early in the morning like a SWAT team. We're challenging that in Europe these types of things cannot happen."

He said if such procedures are limited, the "teeth" will be gone from some of the rules being enforced by various local government officials now, and that ultimately will expand the education rights of children. "What is being done to a sensitive and musical young girl, just because the bureaucrats want to set an example? In their zealous drive to enforce compulsory schooling (which by Melissa's age is only part-time) at all costs, they readily accept the trauma caused to the unassuming and lovable Melissa," said a German homeschool advocacy organization at the time she was taken into custody.

"The Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit condemns this inconsiderate and totally incommensurate behavior on the part of the officials involved and demands that they give Melissa her freedom and return her to her family immediately," the group, an alliance of individuals, organizations and parent initiatives lobbying to achieve educational freedom in Germany, said.

Melissa had been getting home tutoring in math and other subjects to aid in her schoolwork after school officials warned she needed to catch up. However, those officials were unhappy with the arrangement and expelled her, forcing the family into a homeschooling situation. The German Youth Welfare Office then created a case in Family Court which eventually resulted in the court order to remove Melissa from her home. She remained in custody in various locations from that point until her April 2007 birthday, when she turned 16 and fell under different laws.

The whole issue over her "mental well-being" still remains to be resolved, Kiska said, although educational officials not longer have jurisdiction over her education. In this case, Germany is the odd one out of the European Union because of its attitude toward homeschooling. Only Slovakia has such similar restrictions. Ultimately, "we're hoping for a more uniform approach" to homeschooling in Germany, he said. "There are some areas that are far more conducive to homeschoolers."

The petition being presented to the European Parliament will be by the family, and will seek a more tolerant treatment of those whose unique school needs don't fit exactly into the format of a government institution. It could be heard as early as this year. The family will appear before the parliamentary committee and the teen will tell her story, he said.

The court case will challenge the various rulings regarding her mental well-being, but that is a slower process, and probably will not result in a verdict for several years. In the meantime, the family is refusing to pay the charges for Melissa's custody. "We're handling the case pro bono," Kiska said of his organization. "But their legal expenses (before this point) have been extraordinary. They're suffering. They cannot afford to pay these bills."

The ECLJ was founded about a decade ago by Jay Sekulow and Thomas Patrick Monagham of the American Center for Law and Justice, which set up its European counterpart as a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and defense of religious freedom in Europe.


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