Friday, July 08, 2011

The Year of School Choice

School may be out for the summer, but school choice is in, as states across the nation have moved to expand education opportunities for disadvantaged kids. This year is shaping up as the best for reformers in a very long time.

No fewer than 13 states have enacted school choice legislation in 2011, and 28 states have legislation pending. Last month alone, Louisiana enhanced its state income tax break for private school tuition; Ohio tripled the number of students eligible for school vouchers; and North Carolina passed a law letting parents of students with special needs claim a tax credit for expenses related to private school tuition and other educational services.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made headlines this year for taking on government unions. Less well known is that last month he signed a bill that removes the cap of 22,500 on the number of kids who can participate in Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program, the nation's oldest voucher program, and creates a new school choice initiative for families in Racine County. "We now have 13 programs new or expanded this year alone" in the state, says Susan Meyers of the Wisconsin-based Foundation for Educational Choice.

School choice proponents may have had their biggest success in Indiana, where Republican Governor Mitch Daniels signed legislation that removes the charter cap, allows all universities to be charter authorizers, and creates a voucher program that enables about half the state's students to attend public or private schools.
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Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma have created or expanded tuition tax credit programs. North Carolina and Tennessee eliminated caps on the number of charter schools. Maine passed its first charter law. Colorado created a voucher program in Douglas County that will provide scholarships for private schools. In Utah, lawmakers passed the Statewide Online Education Program, which allows high school students to access course work on the Internet from public or private schools anywhere in the state.

Even in the nation's capital, and thanks largely to House Speaker John Boehner, Congress revived the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for poor families that the Obama Administration had wanted to kill at the behest of teachers unions.

One notable exception is Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Corbett and the Republican state legislature bungled passage of a state-wide voucher bill. Mr. Corbett promised during his election campaign last year that he'd make the reform a priority. Instead, Republican legislative leaders dithered for most of the spring, and Mr. Corbett got engaged very late. The session ended last week without passage of the voucher bill and several other school choice measures, including an increase in charter school authorizers. The Pennsylvania State Education Association is no doubt delighted by the failure.

Choice by itself won't lift U.S. K-12 education to where it needs to be. Eliminating teacher tenure and measuring teachers against student performance are also critical. Standards must behigher than they are.

But choice is essential to driving reform because it erodes the union-dominated monopoly that assigns children to schools based on where they live. Unions defend the monopoly to protect jobs for their members, but education should above all serve students and the larger goal of a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper.

This year's choice gains are a major step forward, and they are due in large part to Republican gains in last fall's elections combined with growing recognition by many Democrats that the unions are a reactionary force that is denying opportunity to millions. The ultimate goal should be to let the money follow the children to whatever school their parents want them to attend.


As Budgets Are Trimmed, Time in Class Is Shortened

After several years of state and local budget cuts, thousands of school districts across the nation are gutting summer-school programs, cramming classes into four-day weeks or lopping days off the school year, even though virtually everyone involved in education agrees that American students need more instruction time.

Los Angeles slashed its budget for summer classes to $3 million from $18 million last year, while Philadelphia, Milwaukee and half the school districts in North Carolina have deeply cut their programs or zeroed them out. A scattering of rural districts in New Mexico, Idaho and other states will be closed on Fridays or Mondays come September. And in California, where some 600 of the 1,100 local districts have shortened the calendar by up to five days over the past two years, lawmakers last week authorized them to cut seven days more if budgets get tighter.

“Instead of increasing school time, in a lot of cases we’ve been pushing back against efforts to shorten not just the school day but the week and year,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the federal Department of Education. “We’re trying to prevent what exists now from shrinking even further.”

For two decades, advocates have been working to modernize the nation’s traditional 180-day school calendar, saying that the languid summers evoked in “To Kill a Mockingbird” have a pernicious underside: each fall, many students — especially those who are poor — return to school having forgotten much of what they learned the previous year. The Obama administration picked up the mantra: at his 2009 confirmation hearing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared, “Our school day is too short, our school week is too short, our school year is too short,” but its efforts in this realm have not been as successful as other initiatives.

“It feels like it’s been pushed to the back burner a bit,” said Jeff Smink, a vice president at the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.

The most ambitious federal program in this realm is part of a $4 billion effort to overhaul 1,150 failing schools, in which each is required to select an improvement model that includes a new schedule increasing learning time. In the Denver suburbs, for example, Fort Logan Elementary School has used the federal money to add four and a half hours of instruction per week.

But an interim report on the program in 10 states found that several districts visited by federal inspectors were out of compliance. In Reno, Nev., for example, officials found that Smithridge Elementary School was using the 15 minutes it had added each morning for breakfast, not academics. District officials in San Francisco, the report said, “believed that Everett Middle School extended the school day by an hour six years ago and due to this reason was not required to implement any additional time.”

In a separate report scheduled for release on Thursday, the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston group that advocates expanding instruction time, acknowledges that an “untold number” of schools nationwide have reduced their hours and days, often by furloughing teachers. But the report also says more than 1,000 schools and districts have expanded their schedules, and highlights many examples.

In Pittsburgh, for example, $11 million in federal stimulus money is being used this summer to provide 5,300 students — more than twice the 2,400 enrolled last year — 23 additional days of math and reading instruction in a camplike atmosphere that converts some of the city’s museums, recording studios and even bicycle-repair shops into classrooms.

In the small town of Brandon, S.D., near Sioux Falls, some 65 teachers and principals plan to work without pay this summer to keep alive a summer school program that would have otherwise been canceled because of cuts in state aid.

And in Chicago, which has had one of the shortest school days of any major urban system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won powers last month to impose a longer day and year. Mr. Emanuel is working with school authorities to add time for the fall term.

But each of these seems to have a counterexample.

Across Oregon, districts have been negotiating furlough days with teachers’ unions. In April, for instance, the local union agreed with the 17,000-student North Clackamas district, south of Portland, to six unpaid days off in 2011-12, leaving students with 168 days of class. Many of Oregon’s 200 districts have cut similar deals. The average number of days teachers are scheduled to be with students next year fell to 165 from 167 this year, according to a survey by the Oregon School Boards Association.

Oregon sets minimum annual instructional hours — 990 hours for ninth grade, for example. Most states set minimum days, and several that do — including Arizona, California and Nevada — have lowered the bar amid belt tightening. Nevada’s new law, signed in June, allows as few as 175 days, down from 180.

California made the same cut in 2009, but last week dropped the minimum to 168 for any district where revenues fall short of projections during the 2011-12 school year. Hawaii, mired in red ink, shortened its 180-day school year to 163 days in 2009, shuttering schools on many Fridays. But lawsuits and widespread protests last year persuaded lawmakers to restore the school year to 178 days.

Last month, North Carolina lawmakers moved in the same direction, raising the state’s minimum to 185 days of instruction, up from 180. But since the legislature provided no additional financing, some education officials there were less than thrilled.

The 2,800-student Balsz elementary district in Phoenix adopted a 200-day calendar starting in 2009-10, drawing on a local tax levy and a decade-old state law that increased financing by 5 percent for districts that meet that threshold. “Parents love it,” said Jeffrey Smith, the superintendent. And Mr. Smith said the results were palpable: after one year of the new schedule, reading scores jumped 43 percent in Grades 5 and 6 and 19 percent in Grades 3 and 4.

And if many students groan at the notion of spending more time in class, some have warmed to it.

Rubi Morales, for instance, said that when she started six years ago at the Preuss charter school in San Diego, which has seven hours of class (instead of the typical six) 198 days of the year, she resented returning to her gritty neighborhood in the evenings to find all her friends roughhousing in the streets.

“They were doing fun stuff, and I’d be getting home and doing homework,” recalled Ms. Morales, 18, who is headed to the University of California, Berkeley, this fall. “Now I see all those study hours paid off.”


Schools that fill Oxbridge: Top five take more places than 2,000 comprehensives combined

A handful of leading schools sends more pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 of the country’s comprehensives and colleges combined. Four prestigious private schools and one state school produced 946 Oxford and Cambridge entrants over three years.

At the same time the 2,000 worst-performing state schools, two thirds of the national total, produced only 927 Oxbridge students.

The leading fee-paying schools, which charge around £30,000 a year, are Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s School and St Paul’s Girls School. The state school, Hills Road college, is based in the heart of Cambridge and caters for the children of leading academics and scientists.

The startling figures were disclosed in the first study of its kind by the Sutton Trust, an education charity which analysed the destination of 750,000 school leavers. The data also shows that grammar schools fare very well when it comes to university places.

On average, grammars sent 65 per cent of their pupils to the top 30 institutions, compared with only 28 per cent for comprehensives.

The 100 elite schools – 3 per cent of the national total – accounted for 32 per cent of admissions to Oxbridge.

Only 12 council areas sent more than 2 per cent of A-level candidates to Oxbridge – and all but one of these were in the south-east of England. The exception was Trafford in Greater Manchester.

The findings highlight the extent to which the choice of school dictates the life chances of youngsters and the Coalition said the report showed Labour had failed young people.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: ‘This report is a damning indictment of Labour’s failure to improve social mobility. ‘Despite all their promises, they left hundreds of thousands of children with little to no chance of getting to the best universities. ‘We are tackling these inequalities by increasing the number of good schools and targeting funding at the poorest pupils.’

The Sutton Trust figures show that Westminster, attended by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, sent the most pupils to Oxbridge between 2007 and 2009 – 235. Next was Eton with 211, followed by Hills Road with 204, St Paul’s School with 167 – a staggering 46 per cent of its pupils – and St Paul’s Girls School with 129. The grammar sending the largest proportion of students to Oxbridge was Queen Elizabeth’s in Barnet, North London.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said schools would try harder to raise standards if they were made to publish data showing the destinations of their leavers. Brian Lightman, of headteachers’ union ASCL, suggested poor pupils were put off applying to Oxbridge. ‘Regardless of ability level, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds will sometimes find Oxford and Cambridge a foreign and intimidating world,’ he said.

Meanwhile, almost 200,000 youngsters have been denied university entry after a record surge in applications. A total of 669,956 youngsters chased the 479,000 places available in the final year before tuition fees rise up to a maximum £9,000. Students without offers will have to scramble for places through clearing when their A-level results are published next month. But opportunities are expected to be limited because few students will take a gap year ahead of the fees rise.


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