Monday, October 31, 2011

School choice making inroads in blue states

If you have any doubt that real school choice can reach practically every state in this country, cast those apprehensions aside. School choice is making inroads in big, blue states, and it’s likely coming to a community near you.

Need proof? Take a look at the news that just broke last night in Pennsylvania.

Led by a Democrat and a Republican, a school voucher bill — yes, a voucher bill — passed out of the State Senate with bipartisan support, just one day after the legislation (Senate Bill 1) was approved in the Senate Education Committee.

This all happened in the Keystone State, a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 by more than 10 percentage points. In fact, the last time the state voted for a Republican for president, there was still a superpower called the Soviet Union and the sitcom “Full House” was in its first season.

If the Pennsylvania House passes the voucher bill, it will likely be signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett. And it would be inhumane not to enact the program, given who it helps. The proposal would permit private school vouchers only for children in families that make less than $30,000 per year (and that’s for a family of four). To qualify, the students would have to attend the absolute worst schools in the state — schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent. This means that the program will be an immediate lifeline for children and families who need our help the most, kids who are attending schools that chronically fail and are frequently violent.

Just imagine, for a moment, living in poverty (in this economic climate, no less) and knowing that your child is attending one of the 100 worst schools in any state. Imagine the feelings of complete and utter hopelessness. This legislation provides immediate options to parents, and it will incentivize public schools to improve. The legislation also includes a provision increasing funding for the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program, a highly popular initiative that helps children from low- and middle-income families receive corporate scholarships to go to private schools. That program saves state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while providing companies with incentives for helping improve education.

The bill that passed last night in the Pennsylvania Senate is no small proposal. It’s significant, it’s targeted and it will change the face of Pennsylvania education — in a good way. And, it’s making headway thanks, in no small part, to Democratic leaders.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state passing education reform measures with bipartisan support. Across the Delaware River, in New Jersey, another bipartisan team — and we’re not talking “token Democrats” in either state, we’re talking Democratic heavyweights — is championing a scholarship tax credit proposal for low-income kids. Indeed, school choice is smashing through the status quo’s invisible Northeastern firewall in a year when nearly a dozen states have enacted or expanded private school choice programs.


Fear and loathing in British classrooms: the girls think they are fat and the boys are carrying weapons

The girls think they are fat, the boys are carrying weapons, and children of both sexes are getting heavily drunk by the age of 12.

The grim picture of the modern classroom is revealed in a series of statistics issued by the Schools Health Education Unit. The figures disclose that by the age of 11, at least one in three girls wanted to lose weight, rising to two thirds by they got to the age of 15. By that age, a third had skipped breakfast on the day they were questioned, and of those, one quarter had missed lunch on the previous day.

Meanwhile, some children as young as 12 were found to be drinking the equivalent of 19 glasses of wine a week.

The study by the unit, based on data collected from more than 83,000 children aged between 10 and 15, found four per cent of children aged 12 or 13 had drunk 28 units or more of alcohol in the week before they were questioned – exceeding government limits for adult men, who can safely drink three to four units a day. Three units equates to two small (125ml) glasses of wine, or a pint of strong lager.

By the age of 15, a quarter said they had got drunk at least once in the previous week, with about 15 per cent saying they had done so twice. Most were drinking at home, or in the homes of friends or relations, rather than obtaining alcohol from pubs or shops.

Among boys, fear of violence was a prime concern. One in five boys said they sometimes carried weapons for protection.

The report by the unit – a research company which provides services to schools and health authorities – also showed concerns about bullying, with girls more likely than boys to express fears.

One third of girls aged 10 and 11 were frightened to go to school because of bullying, on some occasions, though they became less afraid as they got older.

Experts said the depressing findings confirmed many of their concerns. Simon Antrobus, chief executive of the charity Addaction, which helps people with drug and alcohol problems, said: "These new figures back up our own experiences.

"We know children who drink at younger ages are the ones who need help most. We also know that children whose parents misuse alcohol are more likely to develop their own problems later in life. "It is essential that these children, and their families, have access to specialist support at the earliest possible opportunity."

Beer, larger and cider were the most popular choices with boys, while girls are opting for wine and spirits.

Alcohol Concern said involvement in "a drinking subculture" at a young age could easily cause consumption to escalate, leading to risky behaviour with sex and violence, and disruption to education and social development.

A spokesman warned that dependency was more likely when people started drinking at a young age.

Nutrition scientists said many young girls felt under a great deal of pressure to obtain an "ideal" body shape, and were easily influenced by the media.

Dr Laura Wyness, a senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said young girls often employed unhealthy methods in an attempt to reduce their weight, with some taking up smoking, while others who cut back too drastically missed out on protein, iron and other vital nutrients.

She said research had found eating breakfast improved cognitive function and might protect against become overweight, though the case was not clear.

The study also found that many children were too tired to stay alert at school. While two thirds of children aged 12 and 13 said they were getting enough sleep for their studies, by the time they were 14 and 15 – the year before taking GSCE exams – almost half of girls and one third of boys said they were not.

The teenagers disclosed that they were spending more time in front of the television or computer than doing homework.

Almost one quarter of girls in school years eight (aged 12 and 13) and 10 (aged 14 to 15) said they spent more than two hours playing computer games the day before they were surveyed, while around 6.5 per cent of girls said the same. Just three per cent said they spent this much time on homework – with one in three saying they spent no time on homework at all.

Cathy Ranson, editor-in-chief of parenting website said: "In an age where many young people have access to a computer, TV or mobile phone in their bedroom these findings don't come as a huge surprise. "Encouraging our offspring to switch off and go to sleep seems to be the key to helping them feel alert and able to function at school."


"Without boarding school I’d be nobody"

Ben Fogle was miserable when his parents packed him off to school; yet he grew to prize the skills and values it gave him. But when the time comes, will he send his own children away?

People often raise their eyebrows when I mention that I went to a boarding school. Many believe it is a symptom of poor, or neglectful parenting; but in my case it was an act of selfless love. My parents had to work twice as hard to pay the debilitatingly high fees – just to give me the best chance they could.

I was a deeply shy, self-conscious little boy; embarrassed by my own reflection. Terrified around other people I can still remember hiding behind my father’s legs when we had visitors. Hopelessly unsporty, and worryingly unacademic, things didn’t look good for me – until I went to boarding school.

Boarding was never a tradition for the Fogles. My mother is the actress Julia Foster, and my father is the vet and author, Bruce Fogle; my two sisters and I grew up above a veterinary clinic in central London, with two golden retrievers and an African grey parrot called Humphrey. We had an exciting, colourful childhood filled with movie stars, dogs in Elizabethan collars and film crews. I loved my home life, but when I was 14 I found myself in an educational conundrum.

I had already had a colourful scholarly career. When I was five my parents sent me to the French Lycée in South Kensington in the hope that I would become fluent in French. It was a spectacular failure and I left after two years and went to a small independent all-boys school in Hampstead.

The school focused too much on academic issues. Buckling under the pressure, I failed my Common Entrance exams and ended up being one of only five pupils in a new London day school. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring environment and the teachers and my parents soon became worried about the detrimental effect it was having on me. Given that no other London independent school would have me, and my parents didn’t want to go down the state route, boarding school it was.

That said, my parents never put pressure on me to go away to school; it was a collective decision. We settled on Bryanston School in Dorset for a number of reasons: primarily, they would have me, but also because it was one of the more liberal boarding schools. It was fully mixed throughout and I wouldn’t have to wear a uniform.

I can still remember that summer of dread leading up to the new term. I loved my home. I loved my dogs and I loved my family. I couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye, but I knew the day would arrive.

I buried my head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t happening. My mother shopped for all my clothes without me and even packed my trunk and tuck box. It was as though I believed that if I ignored it enough, it might go away. But it didn’t and the endless summer raced by and soon we were on the M3 on our way to Dorset.

Bryanston is a beautiful school, surrounded by farms, and separated from the town of Blandford Forum by an impossibly long tree-lined drive.

My stomach turned in knots as we pulled up outside the main building. I will never forget that feeling. I stood helplessly in the drive way, my oversized jumper hanging to my knees and tears streaming down my face, as my parents’ car disappeared back down the drive. I didn’t stop crying for a year.

Now some of you may at this point question putting a child through that emotional trauma but I can assure you that I put my parents through far worse: the sobbing down the payphone every morning; the letter pleading them to take me home. But they were determined that I persevered and stuck by “our” decision.

The teachers were incredible, and I knew several of the other pupils from London, but none of that seemed to make a difference. I was a hopeless boarder; simply too much of a homeboy. A teacher once told me that homesickness was a symptom of a happy family life and that it’s more worrying if you never miss home, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I was determined to hate boarding.

Those teachers were some of the most patient people I have ever met. My housemaster, Mr Long, a former Olympic hockey player, and the headmaster at the time, Mr Weare, both went beyond the call of duty to help me through that emotional first year.

I don’t know how it happened, but one day I woke up and I was happy. Suddenly from heading home most weekends, I would go for a month without an exeat. The homesickness had gone and I began to love school. I made friends. Indeed my very best friends today are from Bryanston.

The school’s liberal ethos may have helped me, but it was the boarding itself that made the real difference to my character. Up until then I had always deferred decision making to my parents – a shrug of the shoulders and a monosyllabic grunt was all I had to offer – but suddenly I was forced to make decisions on my own. My confidence grew; I stood taller.

Some of you may still have a notion that boarding schools are for tough, battle-hardened kids. I’m living proof that this is not the case. So is my wife Marina, who also cried for a year when she started boarding but, like me, isn’t bitter, but grateful for the experience.

The traditional image of cold showers and iron beds couldn’t be further from the reality at most progressive boarding schools. And it may seem strange, but boarding school can strengthen the family unit rather than weaken it.

The time I spent with my parents during holidays and weekends was always positive, happy and uninterrupted. Marina believes boarding protected her relationship with her parents; all her teenage angst was directed at her teachers and matrons, rather than at them.

The irony is that the homesickness I battled with and won as a teenager has returned now that I have a family of my own. Marina and I are already debating whether we will send our two children Ludo, 23 months, and Iona, five months, away to school. Travelling overseas has become much harder for me since the children were born; there are tears on the doorstep when it’s time to say goodbye. Could I bear to send my two beautiful children away to school? I couldn’t possibly say for sure; it will depend on their individual characters and whether they want to board. But in theory, yes.

Boarding school changed my life. It made me the person I am. Perseverance, trust confidence are all assets I still use on a daily basis and if it can do the same for my children then it would be worth it. It may sound dramatic, but without boarding school, I would be nobody.


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