the battle over school choice

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Is There a Crisis?
william galston

Galston is a professor and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Adminstration and is serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency.

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What's your own view of the state of public education in this country?

Where are we today: is the US system of public education as a whole in crisis? The answer to that question, I believe, is no. Today it would be more accurate to say that we have two systems of public education, not one. The first of them is based principally, though not entirely, in the suburbs of this country and [in] some of the wealthier urban jurisdictions and districts. That is a public school system that could be better and should be better. In many respects it is mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced industrial nations. But it is not failing its students.

The second system of public education, which is based principally in poorer urban and rural areas, is indeed in crisis. Too many of the students in those schools are dropping out well before high school graduation. Too many are receiving high school diplomas that do not certify academic confidence in basic subjects. Too many are being left unprepared for the world of work. Too many are being left unprepared to go on to higher education and advanced technical training. Those schools are indeed in crisis and they require emergency treatment....

There are important gaps in resources between many of the wealthier jurisdictions and many of the poorer jurisdictions. And money matters in education--there's no getting around that. However, many of the gaps in per pupil expenditures between urban districts and their surrounding suburban districts have been closed in the past ten years, not eliminated in all cases, but closed substantially in many cases. [This is] in part because a higher percentage of the expenditures in the poorer districts are now being picked up by the states or even by the federal government through its compensatory education programs.

So, while money matters, it's not the only thing that matters. School safety and discipline matter a lot. Teacher quality matters a lot. Support from parents and the surrounding community matters a lot. And a culture of learning matters a lot. And all of those things have to be attended to at the same time that we continue to focus on the existing and remaining gaps in resources.

What works, from your experience in public schools, especially in urban areas that are in the crisis you described?

Some very basic common sense measures work in dealing with the crisis of urban education. You need good leadership in the schools, a strong principal focused on the basics can make an enormous difference. Restoring safety and discipline and backing up teachers who are determined to maintain discipline in their classrooms and in the school corridors can be very important. High expectations work. A solid academic curriculum for all students works. And determined efforts by school districts to recruit and retain high quality teachers can make a big difference....

We are talking about education here--public education--but ultimately, given what you've been saying [about] the disparities in education, we're really talking about race and class in America, aren't we? If we're talking about this new economy and people having to be highly skilled, highly trained, well educated, deal with computers and so forth, then the danger is that you'll leave a substantial portion of America behind unless schools in urban areas get a whole lot better.

When anyone speaks of the distinction between the suburbs and the cities in America, and the distinction between suburban school districts and urban school districts, one is speaking to a significant extent about race and ethnicity and class. If we do not close the gap between the two systems of public education in America, the system that could and should be better, but which is not failing its students, on the one hand, and the system that is failing its students on the other, then we will be condemning our society to the perpetuation of the distinctions and the inequalities across lines of race, ethnicity, and class that we've been struggling to overcome in recent generations.

I don't know of very many people at any point along the political spectrum who want to look forward 10 or 20 years and see an America divided along lines of race, ethnicity, and class. I think that all Americans of good will want to see that those divisions narrow in the next generation. Public education reform that brings all public schools up to a common standard of achievement and expectation is one of the best ways of closing that gap that I can think of.

paul e. peterson

Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), and Director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Learning from School Choice and is an advocate of experimenting with voucher programs.

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I think that we are doing fabulously as an economy, in part because we're bringing a lot of brilliant immigrants from abroad, for whom there are plenty of opportunities in the American economy because we're not growing our own. It's not clear that we are doing as well with our very best students as we should be doing, given the great resources this country has. How come we don't have the really top-performing students, or as many of the top-performing students, as you would think the United States should be able to produce? At the same time, we know that, among minorities and among inner cities families, among low-income families, the system is obviously failing.

So, I think we have problems throughout the system. Yes, the American educational system may be almost as good as it used to be, but it sure hasn't been improving. And everywhere else in our society, things are a lot better. We have better cars. We have better TVs. We have bigger houses. Wherever you look, things are better, but not in education. They may be as good--maybe not as good--[but] they certainly aren't better.... Why is that our test scores aren't going up, decade by decade? Year by year? Why is it that the Japanese continue to out-perform us? The Taiwanese? The Koreans? Why can't we be the best in the world? We're the best in every other area. Why can't we be the best in education? Why do we have to take mediocrity as about right for the United States?

And, when you say that, are you talking about elementary and secondary education? Or do you include our universities in this?

The United States has been fortunate to have great universities. And we still have students coming from all over the world to study in the United States, so there must be something that's bringing people here. Universities are more competitive with one another. They compete for teachers. They compete for students. It's an environment where being better counts. Elementary and secondary--that same sense of competition isn't there. There's probably plenty that could be improved in American higher education--I don't want to say there isn't--but I think the biggest problems are in the first 12 years.

If we knew what worked, it would be so easy to fix, but because we don't know what works, that's why we have to have competition. . . . Try things out. Take an experimental attitude. Those who discover what works can then spread the gospel to others. And you would say, when Americans say, "What works in K through 12 education?"--What? What do you think does work? And then, again, what doesn't work? What's the biggest problem?

If we knew what worked, it would be so easy to fix, but because we don't know what works, that's why we have to have competition. That's why we want to let a 1000 flowers bloom. See what happens on the ground. Try things out. Take an experimental attitude. Those who discover what works can then spread the gospel to others, and we'll see, as a result, improvements across the board, up and down the line, not overnight, but in the long run--maybe in the course of the next decade.

Don't we know a lot already? That, to a certain degree, a smaller class size, perhaps less anonymous experiences in high schools, better trained teachers, more enthusiastic teachers, a decent level of of financial support [improve schools]?

All of these possibilities may be part of what works. Certainly, a good leadership counts and committed teachers count, and taking advantage of the new technology counts. There are lots of things out there that count. But, what's the right package and how to put it together? I think there's a lot yet to be learned, and we'll only learn it if we ask the people in the system to try different things out and to compete with one another to show that what they've got is the superior product. That's exactly what we do in every other sector of society, why shouldn't we do it in education?

Caroline M. Hoxby

Hoxby is Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard University and has conducted research examining the value of competition to public schools.

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When people talk about a crisis in public education . . . what do you think the concern really is? Is it with our colleges and universities, or are we talking kindergarten through 12th grade?

First of all, I don't think the crisis has very much to do with higher education, at all. I think most people feel pretty happy about the higher education system in the United States. People are really talking about K through 12 education. And when we talk about the crisis, I think it's important to talk about what the crisis is. We don't have an achievement crisis in the United States. We have achievement that is, perhaps a little bit better, maybe about the same, perhaps a little bit worse, than it was in 1970. So there's no "crisis" in the sense that achievement has been deteriorating.

However, we want out students to have the best education in the world. And a lot of countries have improved their education a lot since 1970, whereas we stayed about the same, maybe a little bit better. And I think, increasingly, we're feeling mediocre in the world of industrialized nations. We're not doing the worst, in terms of math and science and reading and writing, but we're certainly not doing the best amongst other nations with similar industrial composition.

So I think that's one of the worries. The other worry is that we've been spending a lot more on education since 1970. Education spending has gone up by about 85% in real dollars since 1970. So, I think that the spending has been going up because people want to have education that's getting a lot better over time, and having it stay about the same or getting a little bit better is not making people happy. . . .

Let me ask you sort of the macro picture here. Here's Shaker Heights, [Ohio] which is an upper middle class community, solidly upper middle class. And people there, in general, seem to have quite an investment in the education of their children and are willing to tax themselves enormously to pay for a very good public school system....Just down the road is Cleveland, a school district that, at one point, was $150 million dollars or so in debt. Schools were falling apart and there didn't seem to be the economic ability to generate the funds that were necessary to repair those schools, repair them physically and repair the education in those schools. Isn't the sort of crux of this problem or one of the fundamental cruxes of the problem in education is this tremendous disparity in income that people have?

School finance or the degree to which a school system only reflects the amount of money of the people who live around it is, actually, a somewhat separate issue from school choice. For the last 30 years we've had very active policy making on what's called school finance equalization, which is the attempt to make sure that schools that serve parents who do not have incomes are actually able to spend about the same amount as schools who serve richer parents, or middle class parents. And every one one of the fifty states has been very active on school finance equalization. Every state legislature has a program to equalize school finance and many state courts have been involved in it.

School spending has been equalized between rich and poor districts within a state to a great extent over the last 30 years. It is not perfectly equally, by any means, but average school spending has risen, as I said earlier, by about 85% in the United States, on average. And, the poorer districts have had their spending rise faster than that and the richer districts have had their spending rise more slowly than that. So they have drawn together, gradually, over time.

I think that it is important that schools that serve poor families have enough money for education, but if you look at a school district like Cleveland, the public school system is spending much more on a per pupil basis than any of the private schools that parents who take the voucher are going to have their children receive in those private schools. The disproportionate spending in the public school versus these private schools is, perhaps, 2 to 1, maybe 3 to 1 in some of the private schools; which suggests that it's not just about money. It's partly about the money and it's partly about making sure that the money is well spent. . . .

chester e finn, jr.

Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. He was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education.

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Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in crisis?

I think we're doing a pretty mediocre job as a whole. There are some beacons of quality, but they don't serve many kids. When you look at the international comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.

If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.

I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't particular want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either. While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time. We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up or ship out." It's one of the reasons why the standards-based reform movement is beginning to produce a kind of backlash around the country. It is beginning to say, "Hey, we're serious, and if you can't pass this test, you can't get a high school diploma."

rudy crew

Crew is the executive director of the University of Washington's new Institute for K-12 Leadership. He was chancellor of New York Public Schools for four years, one of the longest tenures of any recent chancellor. While leading the district of 1.1 million students, Crew ended the automatic promotion of failing students, changed the practice of giving lifelong job protection to principals, and persuaded the state Legislature to give the chancellor more say over the appointment of local superintendents. In news accounts, Crew blamed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his departure. The two had several disputes, including over a plan favored by the mayor to give public school students taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools.

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Is there a public education crisis now?

Certainly [the word "crisis"] would be applicable in some places. But I think it's a misnomer. I think the real enemy here isn't, quote, "public schools in crisis." That makes good camera-ready copy for somebody's journal. But the real issue is the tremendous variation between and among schools. In every city across this country, there's huge variation in the outcomes for kids. There are some that are doing extraordinarily well, and then you have some that are in the same system who are chronic occupiers of that lower rung of achievement.

The enemy in my mind isn't this "crisis." It's this tremendous variation. You need to look at what decreases the variation, when you really look at what would allow for all kids to move to the level of performance where many of our children already are. I think that's actually a more honest statement about it. We have lots of kids that are doing extraordinarily well. We've got some kids in the middle, and then you've got an enormous number of kids on the bottom end. . . .

Below this conversation about education, we're having a conversation about race and class in America.

That's right. Yes, we are. This is as close as America knows how to have a conversation about race and class. The president tried to have this conversation more overtly at one point in his tenure. It was really sort of misguided, in the sense that America's not ready to have that conversation. It's still too raw, or still too fretful, or we're just afraid to do it. It doesn't make us bad. It just means that we've got to find a proxy.

The conversation about education, just below the surface, is about standards, and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? The conversation about education, just below the surface, is about standards, and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? Who will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands? Who will have access to the marketplace? And how will they access that marketplace? All of that is going to be predicated by who has computers, and who is using technology now, who's actually being taught at a level of literacy that would allow them to compete, technologically and academically, in a literate workplace. That is happening in America's public schools.

When you look, and you ask yourself, what's working in some of those other schools? They're spending a lot of time, particularly in elementary schools, huge amounts of time in language development--oral language development done in a variety of ways, done by every teacher, done for long periods of time, done in an integrated, multi-disciplinary way. They're doing it in math, they're doing it in science, they're still using language in language arts, and they're using language in music. They've integrated the notion that your language is king of your ability to actually be a literate human being in this country.

And that represents one of the good things that are happening in these schools that are working. Other schools have spotty language programs. There's a program in, a program out, we like this program today, we don't like this one, and we'll choose another one tomorrow. Teachers in and out. Principals and leadership team in and out.

What you need is some constancy, both in terms of instruction, and in terms of the human resources that are there. You need proficiency, and you need constancy in those schools, just like you have it in other schools that are doing extremely well. And simply, when you find principals and teachers who are committed and love that school, they don't leave. There are no vacancies there.

So the real issue for me is that you can fix these schools if you really want to hang in and do it.

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