Monday, May 24, 2010

Bring Back the Competition

In America’s free-market system, people are encouraged to shop around to find the best deals on car insurance or a home loan, but when it comes to education, many Americans are stuck sending their children to the neighborhood school.

Many parents have very limited options of where their child will attend school. Depending on state laws, options other than public schools may include private and charter schools. Some states also implement voucher programs, to help less fortunate students get the education they deserve.

“Students should come first in the education system,” says Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government (ALG). “Parents deserve options when deciding where their child should attend school.”

By providing more school options to choose from, more competition is introduced into the system. This means better education for all students.

Private Schools

There are a number of benefits to attending a private school, says Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE). “One of them is the quality academics, and the second advantage of religious and independent schools is that they focus on the whole person, not just reading and math. They focus on physical education and reflect the student’s values,” he says.

In 2009, about six million students were enrolled in a private school, which is about 11 percent of all U.S. students.

Religion is the main reason parents enroll their child into a private school. Parents can know that the values and morals being taught to their child in school are the same as those taught to them at home.

Many parents are also concerned with the academic breakdown of some public schools.
“There is a concern about chronically underperforming public schools,” says Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations (CAPSO). “You can see it when parents are organizing for the passing of legislation for voucher programs.”

Cost is a big factor, and sometimes a hindrance, when deciding to send your child to a private school. Those parents who send their children to private schools know the benefits of the education the students are receiving. The Obama family would seemingly agree as their two daughters attend an elite private school in Washington, D.C.

Students enrolled in private schools consistently score well above the national average in every academic area. They are also more likely than public school students to complete a bachelor's or advanced degree by their mid-20s, according to research done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

“Private schools are able to provide parents, through choice, a school that best meets their child’s needs,” says McTighe. “Parents make the match of how their child learns to how the school teaches.”

Charter Schools

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. The charter school movement has grown to 4,600 schools serving more than 1.4 million students, according to a report by the Center for Education Reform.

What makes charter school different than public schools? For one, it gives parents more options of where to send their child. Also, charter schools have more freedom from the many regulations of public schools. Charter schools allow students and teachers more authority to make decisions. Instead of being accountable to rules and regulations like public schools are, charter schools are focused on the students and academic achievement and upholding their charter.

“About 95 percent of charter schools are non-union,” says Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency (EIA). This causes a lot of opposition from teachers unions.

“Unions lose members,” says Antonucci, whenever a new charter schools opens. “Every teacher in a charter school means one less union member and unions want more money. This can put a dent in union’s bottom line.”

Because of the opposition charter schools face, not all states allow them. According to Antonucci, 10 states do not have charter schools. “Unions keep them out,” he says. “The only reason you have them is because a democrat got them in in opposition to the unions or the unions got something in return—like putting caps on the number of schools allowed.”

Despite the opposition, many charter schools are doing very well and being renewed.

Voucher Programs

Maybe one of the most controversial programs of them all, education vouchers have recently been a topic dealt with by the Obama Administration. Nearly 2,000 students in the Washington, D.C., public school system have been recipients of the federally assisted voucher program. This program has allowed those students to attend a private school, which under normal circumstances would have been impossible. Now that program is coming to end after six years of a successful run.

“The D.C. voucher program benefitted disproportionately African American students and it was ended by our first African American president,” says Niger Innis, national spokesman for Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The opposition to voucher programs sees them as a threat to public schools. Innis sees the program as helping public schools. “Vouchers save public schools so they can compete,” he says.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has one of the oldest and most successful voucher programs. Milwaukee spends about $14,000 per public school student and roughly $6,400 per private student voucher. Those who have received vouchers are performing just as well if not better than their public school counterparts while causing more competition within public schools and saving taxpayer money.

With constant union opposition and a bureaucratic-run school system, vouchers have yet to be fully accepted into the education system, despite their proven success.

If the education system does not change, some parents may never have a choice when it comes to their child’s education. It is easy to see that all these education systems thrive when parents are given an option of where to send their children to school. Parents know their children best and should be allowed to pick the school best suited for them.

“The biggest solution is giving parents the opportunity to choose the best road for their children,” says Innis. “Who are we focusing on, the institutions or the children? Are these dollars that are earmarked for education going to the institutions or children? The dollars should follow the children.”


Home School, Sweet Home School

As I addressed a home school graduation exercise the other day, I thought -- more than once -- ah, good old human nature at work once more.

It's what happens when institutions fail or give the distinct impression they're about to. Customers head for the exits: not all of them, maybe just a handful. Yet those who do flee, taking their hopes and their children with them, tend to be people of sharp and quick perception; the kind you want around as much and as long as possible. Their departure evacuates the institution in considerable degree of priceless qualities -- sense of mission, dedication to task, willingness to work and to sacrifice.

The public schools can't hold such people? More shame for those schools. Once upon a time, the great majority of us attended them. In the 21st century, their widely advertised shortcomings and deficiencies are driving out, or keeping away altogether, people whose presence in the classroom every half-sensible educator should crave.

The ceremony at which I spoke featured two -- count 'em -- two young men, supported by scores of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, fellow church members and well-wishers in general. A public high school principal might shrug at the loss of a mere two students from his rolls. Too bad. C'est la vie.

The two in question, nevertheless -- Eagles Scouts soon to take flight, accomplished debaters, tireless readers, international lawyers in the making -- are the sort who clearly adorn whatever company they keep. The public schools want more such, not fewer. Yet fewer and fewer they get, as more and more Americans express their distrust of the public schools' ability to impart an education such as was fairly common up to the '60s.

With the '60s, a kind of sloth and indifference and arrogance and mendacity settled over public education like a blanket. General indictments never give general satisfaction. This one won't either, I confess. We all pretty much know, in any case, what happened. The quest for "social justice" -- busing for racial balance being one instance -- drew attention away from Bunsen burners and Wordsworth.

Late 20th-century demography hardly helped. Public institutions reflect public expectations. Expectations for the schools declined markedly. As divorce split up families and the job market siphoned off the achievement overseers generally addressed as Mom, families tended to see classrooms as holding pens for underfoot kids. Schools ventured into new terrain, such as sex education and the representation of the American story as a narrative of racist imperialism. God was advised rudely to get Himself off the school ground, fast. Teacher unions rated pay and benefits as more important to them than standards and teaching methods.

How fast did the customers catch on? Fast enough. Parents moved themselves and their broods to suburban districts. Private schools, especially religious ones, multiplied. Still other parents took on themselves the task of educating their children. By 2007, an estimated 1.5 million young people, 2.5 percent of all students, were learning at home. Networks arose to provide school opportunities and curricular materials.

To the charge that they were undermining public education, parents pled self-defense. What did the schools expect anyway -- that savvy parents were going to let their children's minds and prospects perish in second-rate settings or worse?

Home schooling isn't the answer for everybody. For one thing, it requires the oversight of highly motivated parents. The best thing to call it, I think, is an end-run around political and cultural obstacles to the flourishing of young people whose parents love them very much.

The two kids -- pardon me, young men -- I addressed on the occasion of their Going Forth into the World (by way of good universities) are individuals of high promise, imbued with ambition, drive, intelligence, sensibilities of various sorts and, not least important, religious instinct. The public schools might have had them but for the schools' perceived inability to maintain the right environment for success and the breeding of character.

Goes to show as a nation we may be smarter than our standardized test scores make us out to be.


New law will bring shake-up of English schools in time for summer

The biggest shake-up in English education for a generation will be heralded tomorrow with legislation making it simpler for parents to set up “free schools” and a new wave of academies.

A short Bill will be introduced this week removing local authority powers to veto new schools, allowing charities or education providers to get state funding for each pupil they attract. The legislation is intended to be rushed through Parliament by summer.

It will also allow other state schools to become academies, enjoying similar freedom from local authorities but with a proportion of their budget — typically about 10 per cent — retained by councils for services such as admissions, transport and special needs.

The school reforms, drawn up by the Conservatives, survived largely intact in coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats and are to be implemented as a priority by the new Government.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto pledged to boost the role of local authorities, giving them powers over schools currently wielded from Whitehall and extending their remit to academies — but their plans were omitted from the coalition deal.

Separate legislation is likely to include provision to make it easier for community groups to aquire and convert public sector land and buildings as premises for “free schools”. Capital costs would be funded from money for a school rebuilding programme.

However, the most dramatic — and immediate — impact on state education may come from allowing existing state schools to convert to academy status, including primary schools for the first time.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has predicted that hundreds and even thousands of schools would do so, and pledged that any school rated “outstanding” by Ofsted would be approved automatically. He wants a first wave of schools to convert to academy status by September.

Head teachers and governors may be prompted to take up the offer to protect their budgets from future spending cuts, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said. An average secondary school with a budget of £5 million would gain £500,000 a year by doing so. Mr Dunford said: “The danger is that this could break up the system, with the better schools having more money and greater independence and the other schools finding life more difficult. We must avoid that polarisation of the system because the people who suffer in that situation tend to be the disadvantaged.”

A further piece of schools legislation, later in the parliamentary session, will include plans to slim down and re-write the national curriculum, overhaul Ofsted to focus inspections more tightly on the quality of teaching, and give heads greater disciplinary powers over disruptive pupils.

The Academies Bill on Wednesday will be followed by a Bill to repeal ID cards on Thursday as the coalition seeks to get off to a swift start in implementing its agreed programme. Parliamentary draftsmen have been working overtime to get the Bills ready.

The Bill will scrap identity cards and the national identity register, the database which was to hold biographical and biometric details on people applying for the card. Already 13,000 British citizens been issued with the cards, at £30 each.

The previous Government spent more than £257 million on preparatory work for the scheme, which was estimated to cost £4.5 billion over ten years. The Home Office has awarded four contracts together worth more than £1 billion, but compensation arrangements are likely to be complex because some also relate to improvements in producing passports.

The tenor of the Queen’s Speech will echo the “freedom, fairness and responsibility” mantra of the coalition programme unveiled by David Cameron and Nick Clegg last week. It will focus on tackling the deficit and reforming public services and politics. Mr Clegg has secured a slot in the speech for a Bill setting up a referendum on reform to the voting system, a major victory for the Lib Dems.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister made clear that he was ready to compromise over a fully elected House of Lords, another Lib Dem goal. Mr Clegg said that work on a new-look upper chamber would begin immediately.

There would be “lots or argument”, Mr Clegg told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One. He remained ambitious, he said, but did not want to let a chance of reform founder by being dogmatic.

“I don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good. I think it should be a wholly elected House. I think any chamber that decides on laws of the land should be wholly elected. But I’m not going to die in the trenches on that.

“The one thing I want to avoid is that this Government ends up like every government over the last century that has talked about House of Lords reform and not delivered it.”

There will be further discussion on the contents of the Freedom Bill, for which Mr Clegg invited people to nominate laws they wished to see replealed.


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