Sunday, February 06, 2011

Real school choice options would help to narrow achievement gap

This week, organizations across the country are holding events to celebrate National School Choice Week, so it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the benefits we receive from the educational options that most of us enjoy. The opponents of school choice often deride it, suggesting that it only serves as a means of undermining public education. Most middle- and upper-class parents, however, already exercise control over most aspects of their children’s educations. They choose their homes based in part on the quality of the school district they are located within, or, if they have the resources, they decide among a number of private and parochial schools.

These schools are not perfect — far from it, in some cases — but, for most of these students and parents, the system works relatively well. There is a well-known correlation between academic achievement and socioeconomic status, and students from higher-income families outperform lower-income students on practically every measure. This disparity is also reflected in the achievement gap between white and minority students. Tino Sanandaji, a Ph.D. student in public policy at the University of Chicago, recently compared the scores of non-Hispanic white American students with those of non-immigrant Europeans on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, and found that the American students performed admirably. White Americans scored seventh out of 28 countries, beating students from Denmark, Sweden, and France, as well as an average of 15 European Union countries.

On the other hand, our educational system routinely fails poor and minority students — those least able to choose a different school by moving to another district. Although the racial achievement gap has narrowed somewhat in recent years, at age 17, black and Hispanic students still score about 10 percent worse on average than white students on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). There a number of proven ways we can expand choice and improve academic achievement for those students.

Missouri has already experienced some success with charter schools. According to a 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, students attending charter schools in Missouri show more improvement in both mathematics and reading than similar students in traditional public schools, and this remains true when looking only at black and Hispanic students. Unfortunately, state statute limits the existence of charter schools to the cities of Saint Louis and Kansas City. If that restriction were removed, the gains of charter schools could be expanded to students in other struggling districts.

Furthermore, we could provide parents and students with more options in existing public school districts simply by restructuring how the schools are funded. Under a weighted-student-formula program (also known as “backpack funding”), students can attend any school within the district, and the schools are funded based upon the number of students they attract — with more dollars devoted to students who typically require more resources to educate (e.g., those with disabilities). Schools are then allowed more autonomy to experiment and compete for students — and for the money attached to them. In California, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland both implemented backpack funding and saw large gains in student achievement across ethnic and socioeconomic lines. San Francisco is now the top performing large urban school district in California. There is no reason, outside of political intransigence, that the Saint Louis and Kansas City school districts could not enact the same reforms.

It would be difficult to design an educational system worse for the disadvantaged than one that assigns students to schools based on the housing that their parents can afford. Although our best schools, public and private, are the product of parental choice, poor and minority students are frequently stuck in monopolistic urban school districts. School choice is not a panacea for this problem, but giving parents the power to choose is a necessary step toward ensuring a quality education for all of Missouri’s students.


Teen Faces Criminal Assault Charges for Shooting Spitwads in School

Andrew Mikel II, a freshman honor student and Junior ROTC cadet at Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy after he graduates. But for now, the 14-year-old is at home, serving out a suspension sentence handed down from school administrators after he shot plastic “spitwads” at other students.

Last December, Andrew was punished for using the hollow body of a ballpoint pen to blow small plastic pellets at three students during his lunch period.

At first, Andrew was slapped with a 10-day suspension, but the county school board later voted to extend his punishment, citing the school’s Student Code of Conduct no-tolerance policy that requires any student found with “any type of weapon, or object used to intimidate, threaten or harm others“ be ”expelled for a minimum of 365 days“ unless ”special circumstances exist.”

Andrew’s family claims the school is “criminalizing childish behavior” and the freshman is filing an appeal to be reinstated.

But the youngster’s problems could go well-beyond the schoolyard. The school district referred the “assault” case to the Spotsylania Sheriff’s Office which has charged Mikel with three separate misdemeanor criminal counts.

Andrew is now serving out a community service sentence and has been forced to enroll in substance abuse and anger management counseling to avoid further prosecution.

Is there a difference between a kid blowing spitwads at fellow students and a criminal charged with possession of a weapon and misdemeanor assault?

No, according to Spotsylvania Police Capt. Liz Scott. “Assault is assault is assault,” she told Fox News. “There were three victims that were involved in this, and I think the public needs to remember that,” she added.

The school’s assistant principal agrees. During a December 21 disciplinary hearing, Lisa Andruss said Mikel’s behavior indicated a disturbing trend because he was disciplined in junior high for shooting rubber bands. In addition, he was suspended in 8th grade for bringing a comb to school that resembled a pocket knife.

The school guidance department told Andrew that as a result of his tarnished record, he will no longer be considered as a viable candidate for the Naval Academy.

The whole situation has Mikel’s parents baffled. Andrew Mikel Sr., a former Navy Seabee and Marine officer, told Fox News that he’s been left “scratching my head at the whole thing.”

“One thing is he must attend substance abuse counseling – he’s never had a substance abuse issue in his life,” he said.

“Right from the get go the Assistant Principal Lisa Andruss said, ‘Come pick up your son, he’s being suspended for 10 days, we’re recommending expulsion, and we’re going to push this to the fullest extent of the law,” he continued. “When I arrived she showed me what amounts to a pee shooter: a plastic pen casing about four inches long and these little plastic balls that he’d had from a toy guy that he had years ago and found in his closet recently. This thing is harmless.”

Andrew admits his stunt was dumb and only did it because he “thought it would be cool.”

Since the school decided to expel him for the remainder of the school year, the family has enlisted legal help from The Rutherford Institute, a “civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.”

“What happened to Andrew Mikel is an example of how oppressive zero-tolerance policies have become,” John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute says. “School officials have developed a very dangerous mindset that allows virtually no freedom for students, while at the same time criminalizing childish behavior.”

“My son did an infraction and he deserves a just punishment, but this is like cutting someone’s hand off for stealing a piece of cabbage,” Andrew’s father said. “If my son, instead of shooting a spitball, went up and punched a student right in the face he would only have gotten five days suspension and even if he‘d drawn blood the school resource officer said police still wouldn’t have gotten involved.” But since police and school officials are considering Mikel’s spitwad shooter as a “weapon,” the case has taken on a whole new meaning.

“It takes four state agencies to go after someone with a spitwad: It takes the sheriff’s department, the commonwealth attorney, the school board on various levels and the department of juvenile justice … what a fine use of taxpayer resources,” he added.

The Mikels plan to appeal their son’s disciplinary sentence next week and hope that his record will be cleared.


Evangelical church based around creationism plans to open free school in Britain

An evangelical church which places creationism at the heart of its belief system is applying to open a free school. e Everyday Champions Church, based in Newark, Nottinghamshire, has said it will teach evolution as a "theory".

Free schools can be set up by charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers and groups of parents.

The church wants to open the new school in September next year and says there are currently not enough secondary places available in the area. Pastor Gareth Morgan, the church's leader, told the Independent: "Creationism will be embodied as a belief at the Everyday Champions Academy but will not be taught in the sciences. Similarly, evolution will be taught as a theory."

Evolution is a recognised part of the science curriculum. But free schools will have freedom from following the national curriculum.

The church's website says the new school, with space for 625 pupils, will be "multicultural in philosophy and will welcome children from all faiths or none". However, it adds that the "values of the Christian faith will be the foundation of the school philosophy".

The website states: "We believe that the Bible is God's Word. It is accurate, authoritative and applicable to our every day lives."

The Government has approved 35 free school applications to move to the business case and plan stage, and eight of these have been given the go ahead to move into the pre-opening stage.


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