Monday, November 07, 2016

Don’t raise the charter-school cap. Eliminate it

WHEN MASSACHUSETTS charter schools were still in their beta phase, it made sense to limit their number. As with other promising innovations — in technology, in medicine, in business — a gradual rollout of charter schools ensured that there would be ample time to monitor progress, adjust standards, fix bugs, and learn from experience.

Massachusetts learned well. Its experiment with state-chartered public schools has proved a phenomenal success. More than two decades after the original charter law was passed, the state’s 69 charter schools (25 in Boston) are among the most effective urban public schools in America. As study after study has confirmed, the benefits of a Massachusetts charter school education are profound. They lead to improved math and language mastery, lower dropout rates, higher SAT scores, and greater college attendance.

“The test-score gains produced by Boston’s charters,” remarks the Brookings Institution, “are some of the largest that have ever been documented .”

So effective are public charter schools in Massachusetts that nearly 33,000 students, predominantly black and Latino, are on waiting lists to get into one. Question 2 on the statewide ballot would allow the state to approve 12 new charter schools per year. For anyone who believes in good education, for anyone who wants disadvantaged children to have a better shot at learning than they can get from chronically underperforming city schools, voting “yes” should be a no-brainer.

But why, after all these years, should the number of charter schools still be capped at all?  Why shouldn’t every public school in Massachusetts be a charter school?

The most zealous opponents of charter schools are teachers unions, which resent them for the same reason that old-style taxi companies resent Lyft and Uber . Competition stings, especially when the competitors turn out to be nimble, flexible, efficient, creative — and wildly popular.

Teachers unions have a vested financial interest in fighting off charter schools, which are not controlled by local school committees, and therefore not bound by local collective-bargaining agreements. Charter school teachers (and other employees) are free to join a union, but almost never choose to do so. No wonder the unions are bitter.

But the goal of public education isn’t to keep unions rolling in membership dues. Nor is it to preserve the arrangement that public-sector unions insist on: rigid seniority rules, ironclad job security, drawn-out bureaucratic disciplinary procedures, and hyperdetailed contractual provisions. The goal of public education is to teach children and prepare them for adulthood. If urban charter schools have come up with a superior means of achieving that goal, why shouldn’t there be as many of them as possible?

Set aside the arguments about funding and local control. Consider results. For decades, traditional urban public schools have failed countless children, sending them into the world with a substandard education that will cripple them for life. Today there’s a better option. Students in urban Massachusetts charter schools — especially students who are not white and well-to-do — achieve significantly more than their peers in traditional public schools.

The beta phase is over. The charter innovation has been a triumph. Instead of tinkering with a charter school quota, we should be debating how to extend the charter model to every school that might gain from it.

Steven Wilson, an architect of the landmark 1993 education-reform law that created charter schools in Massachusetts, always imagined that urban school superintendents would eventually want to get on the bandwagon. “Once they saw the striking results of charters,” says Wilson, now the CEO of Ascend, a nonprofit charter school network in Brooklyn, “I hoped they would march into the State House and demand the same deal for their schools. But they didn’t.”

That deal, in a nutshell is: far more autonomy in exchange for far more accountability. Pass Question 2, and that deal will be available to a few more schools. That’s great as far as it goes, but Massachusetts can go a lot further.


The Great Student Loan Heist

Another week, another instance of the Obama administration — more specifically the Department of Education — circumventing Congress to enact an agenda. The latest example pertains to higher education and the rules surrounding the repaying of student loans. National Review’s Preston Cooper summarizes the problem:

This week, the Obama administration issued a finalized regulation that will allow the Department of Education (DOE) to cancel the debt of students who claim that their colleges have made a “substantial misrepresentation,” such as false or misleading statistics on promotional materials. The DOE can then recover any forgiven balance from the colleges themselves — a major, possibly fatal, financial burden for institutions.

Cooper calls this “another installment in a long saga of government officials using student-aid programs to wield influence over American higher education. Whoever writes the checks makes the rule, and the DOE uses its power to advance an agenda far beyond merely ensuring that taxpayers' money is put to good use.” An example of how things could go haywire:

For instance, Arizona Law School advertises that its graduates' unemployment rate is 2.8 percent. As my Manhattan Institute colleague Max Eden pointed out in US News & World Report in August, the share of Arizona Law graduates without jobs — when you include those not looking for work — is actually 9.7 percent. Reasonable people would conclude that Arizona Law is nonetheless well within its rights to advertise the 2.8 percent figure, since by definition unemployed people must be looking for work. But the Department of Education could easily cite this “misrepresentation” as an excuse to punish Arizona Law and cancel the debt of students. Further, in deciding which “misrepresentation” claims pass muster, the DOE opens the door to selective enforcement and raises the specter of witch hunts against colleges that fall out of political favor.

As we’ve previously written, the larger problem is guaranteed access to federal money for education, which puts taxpayers on the hook. Guaranteed access means every education entity public or private is going to do whatever’s necessary to get a slice of the pie. Nowhere does the Constitution enumerate such a federal power or individual right to the fruits of someone else’s labor. Americans now owe $1.3 trillion in student debt, of which $1 trillion is held by the federal government. The DOE’s latest power play will inevitably lead to even broader centralization.


School Choice Is Better For Students

As the recent hearing in the Texas legislature shows, the school choice debate is far from over. The Texas House of Representatives faces pressure from public school administrators and teachers unions on one end and school choice proponents on the other.

Those who argue against school choice options claim that programs like vouchers and tax credit scholarships take money away from public schools. Public school advocates have even gone as far as to sue successful tax credit scholarship programs. One instance is the lawsuit brought by the Florida Education Association (FEA) against Step Up For Students (which covers tuition, books, and other expenses for more than 90,000 low-income students). What advocates do not understand is that it is not about public versus private schools, but rather about what is best for students.

Public school classrooms tend to have a higher student–to-teacher ratio. While that is an advantage in terms of teaching a uniform curriculum, it can hurt students who do not understand the material at the same pace or level as the rest of the class. Not all students have the same learning style, which means that one method may be suitable for one group of students but not for another. Private schools and charter schools are better able to address students with different learning styles by providing them with a lower student-to-teacher ratio.

In fact, allowing alternatives to public schools would only improve them. Faced with competition, public schools would have to raise their standards of instructional methodology, teacher retention, and standardized testing performance. Otherwise, they will cease to be relevant. The only way to find out what public schools have to offer is to allow the forces of competition to enter the education market. Free markets and unbridled competition have allowed different sectors of our society to thrive; it is time to let them work in the education sector.

Furthermore, school choice programs need not be funded from property taxes as programs like the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) has shown. This program is similar to a retirement investment account, allowing parents to set money aside for their child’s K-12 education with the same tax advantages. Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program is a great example of ESAs at work. Launched in 2014, it provides funds for students with special needs. Parents can apply these funds toward private school tuition, tutoring, physical therapy and other programs. From 2015 to 2016, student participation in this program grew from 1,575 to 4,946 students. Whether, it is vouchers, tax credit scholarships, or the ESA, the point is to give parents the opportunity to choose the best option for his or her child’s learning needs.

Ultimately, academic performance is how success is measured. It is the only reason parents and states are looking for alternative options to public education. Currently, more than half of the states in the United States have some form of a school choice program. Twenty-two states have considered or are considering implementing an ESA program.

Texas faces a tough battle in January of 2017 when its legislators reconsider the issue of school choice. However, when they do, they must consider what is best for students, not the public or private schools.


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