Wednesday, July 20, 2011

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet. The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free rein to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse. States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.


Even in Britain school discipline is possible -- and VERY beneficial

One of the most depressing programmes I’ve seen this year was last week’s BBC documentary that filmed a class of nine-year-olds at a Leicester primary school. The portrait of indiscipline and chaos that emerged left me in utter despair.

While a valiant few got on with their work, many children were loud and disruptive, wandering around the class, talking, singing, arguing, pulling faces - even right in front of the teacher.

One girl used her whiteboard to write down as many swear words as she could think of.

When the teacher watched the footage of her class, she said what she’d learned was that ‘where she placed herself in the classroom’ was of vital importance. At which point, I practically wept. Sadly, she was utterly oblivious to the fact that one of the fundamental causes of her pupils’ bad behaviour was not where she sat, but where her pupils sat.

Instead of having individual desks, they were grouped around tables scattered about the room. Most of the children faced each other, not the teacher. There was no structure and no discipline. Unsurprisingly, they were bored and disruptive.

The extraordinary thing was that this was no sink school. On the contrary, its rating from Ofsted is good. Nor were the children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

They came from loving homes in the ‘squeezed middle’ bracket. Indeed, the chief purpose of filming was to show disbelieving parents footage of their unruly children so that steps could be taken at home to improve behaviour.

Now, I’m all for parental involvement, but what this programme proved was just how little chance even well-behaved children have when they are taught like this.

Children need boundaries and structures to teach them discipline. Even petty rules can be important. Witness, by way of contrast to the Leicester school, the traditional teaching methods that have been espoused by headmaster Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London.

At Mossbourne, pupils are sent home even for wearing the wrong colour shoes. If they arrive late or without their school planner, they have to stay in at break or lunch.

Mobile phones are banned, substantial homework is set, and any pupils who disrupt a lesson or are rude to staff have to stay behind until 6pm.

Teachers work 15-hour days because they recognise that many pupils are unlikely to be returning to a home where they’re encouraged to do their homework, so stay after hours to help them do it at school.

And when the children do go home, teachers and a few ‘heavies’ line the route to the bus-stop so no one gets beaten up for wearing a smart uniform.

The result is that, last year, ten pupils from Mossbourne were accepted into Cambridge. Meanwhile, there are 1,500 applicants for 180 places at the school.

Sir Michael is tipped to become the new head of Ofsted and I fervently hope he’s appointed.

As those of us who went to grammar schools know, what’s needed is not lessons in happiness and wellbeing but structure, discipline and dedicated teaching.


Many Canadian parents can't support their child through university

A survey conducted by TD Canada Trust shows that almost one-in-two parents (45 per cent) who have children eligible to attend post-secondary education this September have not started saving for their kids’ education costs.

As high school graduates pack up and head to university or college this fall, the reality is that many of them will have to find alternative ways to fund their education.

A survey conducted by TD Canada Trust shows that almost one-in-two parents (45 per cent) who have children eligible to attend post-secondary education this September have not started saving for their kids’ education costs.

“Next to saving for retirement, one of the biggest financial challenges the majority of Canadians will face is saving for their children’s education,” says Shahz Beig, Associate Vice President, Personal Lending, TD Canada Trust.

“For university and college students living away from home, the cost of pursuing an undergraduate degree is approximately $80,000, so it’s no surprise parents are struggling to make ends meet.”

The survey found that only 12 per cent of parents with children under the age of 18 plan to pay for 100 per cent of their kids’ university or college education.

Almost half (49 per cent) of parents surveyed say they plan to pay for most of their children’s education, but expect their kids to contribute using earnings from jobs. Thirty-two per cent say they will pay for essentials such as books and tuition, but expect their children to pay for all other expenses.

What to do if you haven’t saved

Students who have not saved enough money to cover the costs of post-secondary have a daunting task ahead of them.

Tuition fees have more than doubled in the past 20 years. In the 2010/2011 school year, the average undergraduate student in Canada paid $5,138 in tuition fees. Expenses on top of tuition include books, rent, food, and transportation costs.

Fortunately, there are some funding options available. Financial assistance can come from government loans, scholarships, bursaries and grants. Some students may also qualify for a student line of credit from their bank, which is often a smarter decision than raking up expenses on credit card or bank loans with high interest rates.

“Buyer beware” however, as student lines of credits and loans can leave university and college students with a significant debt load following graduation.

A StatsCan study of students in 2005 (the most recent year on record for relevant data) showed that 57 per cent of graduating students had loans to pay off. The average student debt at graduation had risen from $15,200 to $18,800 since 1995. The number of graduates with debt loads of $25,000 or more also increased, sitting at 27 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in 1995.

Today the average debt load ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 at graduation, with grads some specialized programs such as medicine or law carrying a debt load upwards of $100,000.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Canadians carry over $13.8-billion in student debt. The number of people defaulting on their loans is also on the rise.

“People are finding it more difficult to make payments, budgets are becoming more strained and we are seeing more reliance on food banks and the use of emergency bursaries offered by student unions,” says David Molenhuis, from the CFS.

The more debt a graduate carries, the less likely they to start saving and building their net worth.

A 2010 StatsCan study shows that, among post-secondary graduates aged 20 to 45, people who borrowed money in school were less likely to have investments or savings after graduation than non-borrowers.

Also, the likelihood of graduates owning a home after graduation was lower for borrowers (53 per cent) compared to non-borrowers (60 per cent).


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