Monday, May 09, 2011

Indiana vouchers only a small step forward

A regulatory mountain being dropped on participating private schools

An expansive new voucher program, signed into Indiana law today, has been widely praised as a momentous victory for school choice and Gov. Mitch Daniels on the brink of his long-awaited presidential campaign announcement. In reality, the voucher program is a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom.

To see why, consider the bill's regulations. Most people would agree there are some topics about which every child in this country should learn. Historical documents, for instance, that are vital for understanding our shared American heritage: the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and Chief Seattle's 1852 letter to the United States government.

Chief Seattle was a great leader of native Americans in the Northwest, and this moving letter lays out the vast gulf between how his people and the "white" man viewed the land, not as a commodity to be bought and sold but a part of themselves, a sacred trust. Chief Seattle's letter is also a modern fabrication sprung from the pen of a screenwriter for a 1972 film about ecology.

And in Indiana, it is a legally protected historical document that public, and now voucher-accepting private schools, are required to have on hand for academic use by students.

The apocryphal Chief Seattle letter is merely an illustration of the dangers and absurdities of state-controlled curriculum. Private voucher schools will not only be forced to make this fabrication available to students, they are also prohibited from lowering a student's grade, if he should, for example, cite the letter as a primary source in the course of his school work.

Unfortunately, this is just the peak of the regulatory mountain being dropped on participating private schools. The legislation will greatly expand state regulation of and authority over participating private schools. It will force them to annually administer the Indiana Statewide Testing for Progress examination (ISTEP), and submit both ISTEP and other progress and performance data to the state. It will require the state to track and evaluate private schools according to state standards, and to align consequences with their performances. It establishes a lottery admissions requirement for over-subscribed schools that could interfere with their ability to determine admissions procedures and the character of the school.

Finally, it establishes extensive and detailed new curriculum and pedagogical requirements for participating private schools, including some requirements that are not currently a part of state accreditation. For instance, private schools must "provide good citizenship instruction that stresses the nature and importance of," among other items, "respecting authority," "respecting the property of others," respecting the student's parents and home," "respecting the student's self," and "respecting the rights of others to have their own views and religious beliefs."

What does this mean for religious private schools teaching that one can only be saved by belief in Jesus Christ? Would a school wherein a teacher discusses the recent federal healthcare legislation violate the provision mandating respect for authority should she criticize the law, or perhaps violate a respect for property if she speaks favorably of the individual insurance mandate in that law?

Currently, less than 40 percent of all known private schools in Indiana are accredited by the state. The majority of private schools, in other words, are subject to very few restrictions on educational freedom.

Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate. Over time, many of those who refuse to submit to state control will be driven out of business by competition from the highly regulated, but voucher-funded schools.

In other words, the voucher program will not only expand state control over and homogenize participating schools by requiring adherence to a single state-designed test, evaluation, and curriculum, it will also cut into the market for non-accredited schools. The likely effect is a serious loss of education freedom and diversity of options in the medium-term and a near-total loss in the long term.

The voucher law places private schools under the supervision of the state Department of Education, making them accountable to career bureaucrats and political appointees for performance on government standards and curriculum. It is an authorization and framework of accountability to the state, rather than to parents and taxpayers directly. This is a strategic victory for opponents of educational freedom; all that's required is a downhill push for tighter control.

In our efforts to expand educational choice across the country, we can't lose sight of what makes that choice valuable; educational freedom and the diversity of choices it allows to develop. School choice is meaningless if all the choices are the same.


Half of British firms give courses in the 3Rs to teenage recruits

Almost half of companies are holding remedial courses in the three Rs for their recruits, a survey shows. Businesses are being forced into the drastic measures because youngsters leave school without a proper grasp of the basics. They are struggling with tasks such as calculating percentages, working out change or composing coherent memos. Teenagers also fall short in terms of team-working, problem-solving, dealing with customers and showing a positive attitude.

The survey, which was carried out by the Confederation of British Industry and qualifications body Education Development International, covered 566 employers with 2.2million workers between them. Forty-two per cent of firms were not satisfied with the basic use of English by school and college leavers while 35 per cent were concerned about numeracy standards. Sixty-five per cent see a desperate need to raise standards of literacy and numeracy among 14- to 19-year-olds.

To address these weaknesses in basic skills, 44 per cent of employers have been forced to invest in remedial training.

A fifth have provided training in literacy, numeracy or information technology. Some firms provided courses in all three areas. John Cridland, CBI director general, said: ‘It’s alarming that a significant number of employers have concerns about the basic skills of school and college leavers.

‘Companies do not expect “job ready” young people, but having a solid foundation in basic skills such as literacy and numeracy is fundamental for work. ‘Employability skills are crucial to making the smooth transition from education to the workplace.’

Last year over 300,000 teenagers failed to achieve a grade C in maths GCSE.

A Department for Education spokesman said the recruitment of specialist maths teachers was part of a package to restore rigour to GCSE and A level teaching.


David Cameron under pressure to ensure that religious education is at the heart of the secondary school curriculum

In Britain??

David Cameron is facing calls to revise exam league tables to ensure that religious education is at the heart of the secondary school curriculum. A campaign to include RE in the new English baccalaureate has won the support of 110,000 people, including faith leaders and 100 MPs.

Before last year’s election, Mr Cameron said any petition with more than 100,000 signatures would be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. The RE. ACT campaign is calling on the Prime Minister to honour his pre-election pledge and allow MPs to discuss revising the school reforms.

The Coalition’s new English baccalaureate was introduced in an attempt to address years of “dumbing down” in which pupils have been able to opt for so-called soft courses at the expense of traditional academic subjects. In order to pass the baccalaureate, all pupils are expected to score A* to C grades in the five core subjects of English, mathematics, science, languages and humanities.

However, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, said RE should be included and called for the Commons to debate the plan. “We have serious concerns that the English Baccalaureate does not include RE in the core of selected academic subjects,” he said. “Many testify to RE being the only space on the curriculum where they can explore their own beliefs and values and engage with people of faith in that exploration. “There is a real problem with religious literacy in society and RE is a crucial gift to us.”

Others backing the RE. ACT campaign include the leaders of Sikh, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Hindu organisations.


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