Thursday, November 12, 2009

Defending school choice

3 Reasons Why We Need It

When it comes to education reforms, few topics generate as much passion, debate and disagreement as the topic of school choice. Naturally, I couldn’t resist diving into the debate.

In one of my recent columns I not only offered my support for the principle of school choice, I even offered my own modest proposal to enhance school choice in Oklahoma. I proposed that Oklahoma start funding a $3,000 tuition scholarship for every K-12 student who enrolls in an accredited Oklahoma private school. Such a proposal, I argued, would provide Oklahoma parents with more freedom, more flexibility and more choices in finding the school that best fits their children’s needs.

In the weeks since I first wrote about school choice I have heard from many people who have great compassion for our children, and a great passion for improving our educational system, yet who believe I am wrong. This week I want to address the three most common arguments I have heard against my proposal.

1. "We already have school choice.” Some dismissed the need for my proposal by arguing that we already have school choice in Oklahoma. It is true that parents have some school choice in our state. We have made progress in recent years in the formation of charter schools, yet these are limited only to Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. Furthermore, parents can choose a public school by choosing where to live. Yet this raises the question, if some school choice is good … wouldn’t more school choice be better? Currently, many families have limited access to the network of private schools in our state. Why not give more parents more choices by making a private school education more affordable (as my proposal does)?

2. "No public money for private schools.” The most common argument (at least expressed to me) against my proposal for the government to fund private school scholarships is that we should not use public money for private schools. In fact the phrase is usually stated in a manner that indicates the speaker believes it should be a debate-stopper. However, this argument is inconsistent with how we operate many other government programs. For example, when the Department of Transportation wants to fund repairs to our state’s roads and bridges, it often turns to private companies to perform the service. When the Oklahoma Health Care Authority wants to fund health care expenses for Oklahoma’s needy families, it often turns to private health care providers to provide that service. When the State Regents for Higher Education want to provide tuition assistance to Oklahoma college students with the Oklahoma’s Promise program, it turns to Oklahoma’s private colleges and universities to accept those funds and provide the education. We routinely use public funds to hire private organizations to provide important services. Why not do it with K-12 education too?

3. "School choice hurts public schools.” Some school choice opponents admit that my proposal would benefit many Oklahoma children but still oppose the idea because many children would be left in a public school system that would have even fewer resources to serve students. Thus, they argue, school choice would hurt the public schools and their students. There are two reasons though, that the opposite — school choice helps public schools — is more likely to be true.

First, under my proposal the state would provide a modest scholarship of $3,000 to every K-12 student enrolled in an accredited private school, paid for by reducing each public school’s allocation by $3,000 for each student they lose to a private school. First, since we currently spend much more than $3,000 per student (actually more than twice that amount), public school funding on a per-pupil basis actually would rise under my proposal.

Furthermore, recent economic research finds that public schools that are losing money and/or students respond by increasing spending on technology, teacher development, and enhancing their curriculum. In other words, competition forces public schools to get better.

Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals all should be able to agree to do all we can to give our children the best education possible. But it is time for us to recognize that if we truly want to give our children the best education, we must enable our parents to choose the best schools for their children.


Rich Chinese send kids to US military schools

"Beating is a sign of affection, cursing is a sign of love." Many may not expect to hear the words of the old Chinese saying in these modern times - with parents wealthier and better educated than they have ever been - but experts say they still ring true. Today, it seems, Chinese parents are less inclined to be of the pampering and spoiling variety than they were a few years ago and more likely to send their children to pre-college military academies in the United States in the hope that some tough love will pave the way to success.

While parents in some countries send unruly children to these military schools in an effort to get them to learn some discipline, in China, many parents are treating the camps as a place where good children can become even better, sharpening their integrity and leadership skills. "Good education doesn't mean letting your child enjoy privileges, especially our boys," said Song Wenming, an entrepreneur in Jinhua, East China's Zhejiang province. "They should be raised in tough conditions to know what to fight for in the future." In August, Song sent his 17-year-old son to Valley Forge Military Academy (VFMA) in Pennsylvania.

And he is far from alone, even though it takes a lot of money - around $48,000 per year - to send a child to a strict military school. Statistics show that an increasing number of Chinese students have been registering with such academies. A few years ago, there were no Chinese students at Valley Forge. Today, there are 28. "All of the Chinese students at Valley Forge came from wealthy families, some of them were spoiled," said Jennifer Myers, director of marketing and communications at the school. "They are generally performing well and hard working." [Of course]

Song's only son, Song Siyu, had a rocky start during his first six weeks at the school. The teenager said he went to the school voluntarily but did not expect it to be as difficult. "From 5:30 am to 8 pm, we are occupied with physical training, marching, shining shoes and badges, ironing clothes and ties, memorizing codes and rules. Worst of all, being scolded by seniors loudly and taking punishment, which means doing push-ups frequently." "The rules sound ridiculous and there is no room to argue or question," said Song Siyu.

Thanks to a previous exchange program in the US, Song has learned enough English to understand orders. "I have done at least 8,000 push-ups in the past three months," he said. It was so "miserable" at the school he considered quitting. Now, three months later, he has perfected the art of taking a bath in 35 seconds, finishing a meal without looking at his food, and making his bed with precision. He can even take criticism, no matter how unreasonable.

"The training is harsh but I know it is good for self-development of individuals," said Song Siyu. "The endless training and scolding are just ways to build up our character, they are not personal."

But his enthusiasm is far from universal. Ten of the 13 Chinese students who joined the academy this year have asked for transfers to other schools. But for those who stick with it, there is a reward for all the hard work. "From a follower to leader, I learned a lot - to lead and to contribute," said Han Tianyu, who is now a student at Case Western Reserve University. He graduated from Culver Military Academy in March. "I did try my best to help out in the unit and lead by example," Han said.

Mo Fan, the grandson of a Chinese entrepreneur, is one of four squad commanders at Randolph-Macon Academy in Chicago. He too enjoys the opportunities to lead. Mo started out in charge of three cadets. Now he leads 80 of the academy's 300 cadets. His mother, Lu Weifang, has been delighted to see the many positive changes in her son. "He is more independent and responsible," said Lu. "I don't think a boy will come to any harm from doing a few push-ups or a bit of running."


British school governors are becoming powerless 'pawns'

Britain's Leftist government is centralizing power over its schools. How predictable!

A new study suggests school governors, traditionally amateurs holding the professionals to account, are losing their role. Does it matter? School governors, the largest group of volunteers in Britain, are on the frontline of what could be a battle for the future of state education in Britain.

The traditional role of this unpaid and often unnoticed army of 300,000 people, who for decades have been seen as the link between schools and their local communities, is coming under threat. And the outcome is likely to have big implications for how schools are run and even whether we continue to have a state system of education as it has been understood since the 1940s in England.

These are among the implications of a new research study on governance. It says that the position of the governing body is in danger of changing profoundly through a variety of pressures, from the advent of academies and trust schools to the drive for schools to co-operate with one another. At risk are some big ideals, such as the notion that educators should be accountable to local people, rather than to Whitehall or to the organisations now sponsoring schools.

The findings of the study by academics at the University of Warwick, funded by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) charity, come at a time when school governance is still the subject of a major government review, which has so far taken 18 months. Its final report is now a year overdue. Education Guardian understands there have been "furious" behind-the-scenes arguments over this review, and that ministers are to back down on plans to cut the size of governing bodies and to limit the time anyone can serve as a governor at one school. The review's final report, which may be published before Christmas, will also propose compulsory training for all new chairs of governors but not go forward with plans to pay governors for their work.

The CfBT report, by Stewart Ranson and Colin Crouch, considers how the role of the school governor is changing. It says that the modern-day governance system is traceable to the 1986 Education Act, which built on local democratic schooling structures dating to the 1944 Education Act. The 1986 Act established the "stakeholder model", which constructed governing bodies from the groups with an interest in the school: parents, teachers and support staff were elected, while others, including local business people, were appointed by the local authority. The idea was that these were the users of education, or "the constituencies in society that have an interest in the institution of the school". They were amateurs holding the professionals to account.

But this traditional model is breaking down, warns the report, in the face of twin pressures: the increasing complexity of education and its domination by professionals who may position themselves as better placed to understand detailed policy; and growing directives by central government and the advent of alternative, less "democratic", forms of governance.

The report discusses this in two ways: first through a series of case study investigations looking at the involvement of governors in three unnamed local authorities as they set up partnerships between schools and colleges to develop the services they offer; and second, through a discussion on trends in governance.

The authors argue that, in two of the case study authorities, the involvement of governors in deliberations on the operation of the partnership arrangements was "typically negligible or non-existent". This is significant, as ministers see partnership as central to their notion of a "21st-century school". Institutions across England must now work together on initiatives including offering joint curricula for 14- to 19-year-olds; developing joint strategies on pupil behaviour ; and on "extended services" schemes offering education and care for children from 8am to 6pm.

The first two case study authorities had set up joint bodies to oversee the running of extended schools services – providing activities including homework clubs, sport and music tuition. But governors did not have much say: one or two could find themselves in a room of 25 "professionals", says the report. School managers and local authority officials dominated proceedings.

In the third authority, a joint committee was set up between heads and governors to oversee partnership arrangements for a new curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds. Although this was not without success, says the report, in reality the heads "could control" the meetings of this group.

One of the case studies also offers insights into the way governors, and even headteachers and local authorities, can be marginalised in the face of pressure from Whitehall to "insist" that trust schools and academies, with different governance arrangements, are established. Trust schools, run by not-for-profit foundations, can appoint the majority on a governing body. In academies, which are sponsored by business people, faith groups, companies or, in some cases, local authorities, the sponsor also appoints most governors. Both of these new types of school need to have only one parent on the governing body. By contrast, in more traditional community schools, elected parents must form the biggest group on the governing body.

In this case study, the local authority applied for funding under the government's multibillion-pound school refurbishment scheme, Building Schools for the Future (BSF). But the government told it that BSF cash would come only if it accepted the creation of a number of trust schools and academies.

Eventually, the authority agreed to set up five trust schools and two academies. But in all but two cases, the schools themselves, including governors, were reluctant. A chair of governors professed still not to see the benefits even after their own school had become a trust. There is also a description of how one school was being pushed, against the will of existing governors, into offering a more vocational curriculum as it became an academy sponsored by a local further education college.

The report adds that, across the authority: "[The governing bodies] became passive pawns in a larger game of power that was led by Whitehall with the local authority struggling on behalf of schools to retain something of their prevailing values ... in exchange for the largesse of capital which they could not do without." ....

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