Monday, November 21, 2011

The Year of School Choice

We're used to hearing bad news from the education front: poor test scores, falling literacy, slipping standards. But the new academic year brings a welcome change: School-choice programs have expanded significantly in recent months. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal has already dubbed 2011 the Year of School Choice.

As of this month, 18 states and the District have policies that support private school choice. Public school choice options also are continuing to grow. On top of that, millions of children are participating in kindergarten-through-12th-grade courses online. Meanwhile, home schooling and charter schools are becoming more widespread.

There are many good public schools across this country, with dedicated teachers who deserve praise. Unfortunately, there also are many bad schools, especially in urban areas. When you consider the damage those institutions inflict, making it nearly impossible for students to learn and fulfill their potential, you realize it’s nothing short of a national crime. That’s why it’s so heartening to see the school-choice movement gaining ground.

It’s encouraging, too, to see this trend crossing the usual red-state-blue-state divide. School choice isn’t spreading in just one region. It’s surging nationwide.

Take Ohio. According to a new report from Heritage Foundation education experts Lindsey Burke and Rachel Sheffield, the Buckeye State has four private school choice programs, a national first.

Before now, Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program was capped at 14,000 students. Now it’s open to 30,000, and legislators have made it possible for more students to qualify. They’ve also added a program for special-needs students, one that provides up to 90 percent of their state education funding for the school their parents choose. Low-income children are being helped as well, thanks to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.

Or look at Minnesota. Residents there can use the K-12 Education Credit program, which provides tax credits to help cover educational expenses at a school of their choosing, up to 75 percent of the amount spent. Thousands of families have been taking advantage of the program and ensuring a high-quality education for their children.

Arizona is another state that’s been helping parents. Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed legislation creating an Education Savings Account program for special-needs students. Under it, Arizona deposits 90 percent of the state per-pupil education funding into a savings account that parents control. They can use it for private school tuition, online education, home schooling, or to save for college. The funds that are unused in one year can be rolled over to the next. Up to 17,000 special-needs students are expected to be eligible for the program this year.

States also have been getting private businesses involved. Rhode Island, for example, has its Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit program. Businesses can get a tax credit worth 75 percent of whatever they contribute to a scholarship-granting organization. Pennsylvania has been doing something similar for the past decade, offering businesses a tax credit to encourage charitable donations that fund tuition scholarships.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign occurred here in our nation’s capital: Congress has reauthorized the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP). Despite its popularity and success, the program was being phased out, and President Obama was doing nothing to save it. Now, however, thanks in large measure to House Speaker John A. Boehner, the program has been restored. In fact, its reauthorization is the only piece of legislation Mr. Boehner will sponsor this year; that’s how important the issue is to him.

The DCOSP budget went up, too, from $13.2 million to $20 million. Low-income students in elementary grades will receive scholarships worth $8,000. For high school students, it will be $12,000.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. School choice isn’t as widely available as it should be, and teachers unions continue to fight it at every step. And although the trend lines are moving in the right direction, we can’t rest until every child has access to the school that best meets his or her needs. Our nation’s future depends on it.


British Children 'dropping English literature in schools'

Children risk growing up with a poor understanding of literature and history as rising numbers of pupils ditch traditional academic disciplines at secondary school, it is claimed today.

A charity set up by the Prince of Wales warns that children’s knowledge base is being eroded as they drop basic subjects at the age of 14 in favour of easier alternatives.

A grasp of core academic subjects is essential to allow young people contribute to society and help solve some of “biggest problems of our age”, the charity says.

But according to figures, the number of pupils taking a GCSE in English literature has plummeted by 12 per cent in the last four years – dipping below 500,000 for the first time.

Geography entries have dropped by eight per cent over two years and the number of pupils studying history to a decent standard this year was lower than the total in 2009. In some schools history and geography are no longer taught as standalone subjects.

In a speech today, Bernice McCabe, director of the PTI and headmistress of North London Collegiate School, will say that too many pupils choose subjects that “do most to boost the league table points tally” - instead of those with the most educational benefit.

Addressing teachers at a conference in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, she says: “You have a challenge on your hands… to renew and reinforce your own convictions about the value of your subject; for instance, the ways in which literature and history help us to understand what it is to be human and to appreciate the diversity of human experience, while geography explains how we are placed in relation to our physical and social environment and thereby points us towards solutions of some of the biggest problems of our age.

“These are hardly unimportant matters. They are things that the children of the rising generation need to have a knowledge of if they are to make a success of managing their own lives, contributing to their communities, governing their country and husbanding their resources.”

The PTI was set up by the Prince a decade ago to help teachers rediscover their passion for subjects.

It stages a series of training courses across the country to give staff crash courses in academic disciplines, with the latest course focusing on English literature, history and geography. It has also covered science, mathematics and modern foreign languages.


Australia: Plan for schools to hire and fire

A small step in the right direction

PRINCIPALS could poach talented student teachers and hire "a percentage" of staff under State Government proposals released today.

The Government will today release a discussion paper, "Local Decisions: stronger school communities", which looks to give parents and state school communities more say on improving education outcomes for Queensland children.

The paper says principals may be able to make an "early offer" of placement to student teachers due to complete their final year of university.

Education Minister Cameron Dick said it was important to ensure student teachers had the chance to gain employment while completing placements.

"It's a positive way for schools to see potential teachers in the school environment upfront and then to give them the flexibility to employ them," he said.

Other proposals include allowing principals and school communities to recruit a percentage of teaching staff depending on school size and location, allowing greater community use of school facilities and giving principals more flexibility to secure funding through philanthropic arrangements.

It comes after the Federal Government said yesterday it would also give principals greater input into hiring staff under a national blueprint, with 179 Queensland schools involved in the reform from next year.

Mr Dick said the percentage of staff recruitment they were proposing would vary across the state from school to school and region to region.

The discussion paper was developed together with teachers, principals and Parents and Citizens' Associations.

Mr Dick said consultation with parents and state school communities on decision-making was beneficial for all parties involved.

"The most effective schools are the ones where the principal, school staff, parents and the school community work together to get the best outcomes for students," he said.

Meanwhile, state LNP leader Campbell Newman said yesterday every state special school would receive 20 iPads or tablets and state and non-government schools with special education units would receive 10 each.


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