Wednesday, December 10, 2008

America Needs "Change Parents Can Believe In"

Let's not kid ourselves. Barack Obama isn't the first (and he certainly won't be the last) Washington politician to send his children to exclusive private schools. In fact, Sidwell Friends - the elite private academy chosen by the Obamas for their two young daughters - was also selected by Bill and Hillary Clinton for their daughter, Chelsea, while they lived in the White House.

But you won't hear me - or any other true educational choice advocate - condemning either family for selecting the educational environment that best fits the needs of their children. That's their right as parents. In fact, in selecting this $29,000-a-year school, Michelle Obama specifically described it as "the best fit for what (our) daughters need now."

Meanwhile in South Carolina (which includes eight counties with a median household income below what the Obamas will pay per child in tuition costs this coming year) one of the state's top gubernatorial prospects, James E. Smith, also chooses to send his children to a prestigious private academy. Again, that's his choice - and based on South Carolina's worst-in-the-nation graduation rate, it's hard to fault him for it.

In Oregon, where the graduation rate is much higher, House Speaker Jeff Merkley and his wife recently attempted to enroll two of their children in a newly-formed charter school. In this case, it wasn't that their public schools were all that bad, they simply wanted something better. Yet when reporters first asked Speaker Merkley about his children's applications, he denied having ever submitted them. How come? Well, as it turned out, Merkley had voted against Oregon's charter school legislation just a few years earlier.

Likewise, South Carolina's Rep. Smith has been one of the most vocal opponents of parental choice in South Carolina - including choice for those eight counties with household incomes below what the Obamas will pay to send just one of their children to private school this coming year.

And then there's Obama himself, who is following in the footsteps of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and his Illinois colleague Jesse Jackson, Jr., in ardently opposing academic scholarships and tuition tax credits which in most cases add up to less than half what public schools are spending. "We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them," Obama says, a clever sound bite that ignores the billions in new taxpayer dollars we pour into public education year after year in an unsuccessful effort to do just that.

Sadly, politicians like Obama, the Clintons, Kennedy, Jackson, Smith and Merkley are hardly unique in availing themselves of the very choices they refuse to make more accessible to the vast majority of American parents. According to a 2007 report by the Heritage Foundation, 37 percent of U.S. Representatives and 45 percent of U.S. Senators enroll their children in private schools - a rate four times higher than that of the general population. Simply put, choice is a good thing - but only for those rich or powerful enough to enjoy it.

So what is Obama's solution for the rest of America's parents? For all his talk of "change we need," and "change we can believe in," Obama's plan is all too familiar - keep throwing more money into the same old failed bureaucracies while branding anyone who wants to empower parents as being "anti-public education."

Yet as our nation falls further behind its industrialized peers in standardized test scores, we desperately need an education system focused on achieving results, not accommodating a status quo that has proven utterly incapable at adapting to a changing world. More money and expensive new "accountability" measures have clearly failed to move us forward. We must now provide change that parents can believe in, a process which begins, ironically, with providing them the same choices currently enjoyed by their leaders.


Britain: New ‘Report cards’ on schools to help parents to choose

Parents choosing a state school for their child are to get help in the form of a report card that will award schools a grade from A to F, based on factors such as pupil satisfaction and exam scores. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said that the report cards, modelled on a system used in New York, aimed to cut the “detective work” that parents have to do, by bringing together information on academic achievement as well as other criteria. These may include ratings of pupil and parental satisfaction, child well-being and a measure of how the school is doing in narrowing the achievement gap between children from rich and poor households.

Mr Balls said: “There is lots of useful information out there for parents on how schools are performing – like performance tables and Ofsted reports - but the volume of data can be confusing and difficult to navigate.”

Report cards will grade primary and secondary schools in England on an annual basis, although individual measures could be updated through the year. They will also provide “signposts” to other information, such as Ofsted reports. If successful, the cards are likely to prove a useful alternative to league tables based only on exam results, which have been criticised heavily for providing a crude and partial measure.

Teaching unions gave the report cards a cautious welcome. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said they represented an “interesting opportunity”, but that the measures used to compile the reports needed to be robust.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The balanced report card has the potential to reflect better the performance of the school than any single set of examination statistics, but it must replace league tables, not be in addition to them.”


Carols canned as Australian Primary School opts for multicultural event

A primary school has dumped its traditional Christmas carols concert in favour of a musical event for multicultural families. Pinewood Primary School, in Mt Waverley, Victoria, has been accused of acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas, despite Premier John Brumby's warning that schools should not play down the Christmas spirit for the sake of political correctness.

Angry parents and Liberal MPs slammed the decision. Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said it appeared the school community was not consulted about the change. "I'd like to think that tradition is not thrown out the window like this. It's bah, humbug," she said.

Liberal education spokesman Martin Dixon said the majority of Australians, whether from Anglo-Saxon or ethnic backgrounds, celebrated the Christmas tradition. "And it's obviously been part of that school's tradition, and there's no need to change that," he said.

Principal Maurice Baker said it was decided to replace Thursday's carols event with an entertainer. "We thought we'd like to present this sort of thing to our parents, and we thought the only way we could do it was in place of our carols night this year," he said. "And we thought that was probably not a bad idea either because it gave people from other cultures the chance to celebrate with us." Asked if non-Christian students and parents usually attended the carols night, Mr Baker said: "They can, but they choose not to because it's not their religion."

Last month, Mr Brumby urged schools and kindergartens to let children enjoy Christmas no matter what their religion. "Christmas holds a significant place in Australian society and it is important schoolchildren . . . gain an understanding of its historical and cultural importance to our country," he said.

Mr Baker said Pinewood still celebrated Christmas in different ways and the carols might be back next year. "It's not as if the Grinch has come here and stolen Christmas," he said.

At Canterbury Primary School, students and teachers are getting into the yuletide spirit in a big way. Principal Anne Tonkin said students had taken part in various community Christmas functions, including carol singing and helping out with a Christmas stall. "It provides an opportunity for students to showcase their talents," she said. Canterbury parent Vicki Vrazas said her children looked forward to Christmas events. "They love it, it's part of tradition and respecting Christmas values," she said.


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