This is Part 3 of The Facts about School Choice. In Part 1 and Part 2, Amanda Koonlaba explained the history of the school choice movement beginning with Brown v. Board of Education and ending in 2015 when the state of Mississippi passed HB 369, better known as the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act. Part 3 seeks to expand on and address problems with two major themes of market reforms.
As the school choice movement continues to gain momentum across America, two major themes have emerged from its current manifestation as a market model of reform: power of competition to improve all schools and deregulation by the government. The major assumption is that the market model works for businesses to lower prices, create better products, and offer leaner bureaucracies. Thus, the market model must work for the educational system.
Indeed, in his “State of the State” address this week, Governor Bryant outlined the need for such reforms, echoing other members of his party and certain education lobbying groups. At the School Choice Rally in Jackson, House Education Chair John Moore commented, “I think that competition that will be out there will be very critical. I think we’ll see a lot of poor performing districts…there will be a lot of pressure applied to them to do something.” So what is it that poor performing districts tend to actually do when competition and deregulation are introduced, and have these strategies actually enjoyed success in other states?
Competition within the free market is largely credited as the force driving America’s economy. Two or more businesses vying for a market share produce better products, driven by the incentive of profit. This “Invisible Hand” rewards innovative and hard working businesses, and benefits the public with better products and services. “School choice” reform is often called a business, market, or corporate reform because it depends on this mechanism.
The Milwaukee Vouchers Experiment
A large number of cities and states across America have tried education policies based on the theory of competition. Milwaukee has had a voucher competition program for over 25 years. Voucher competition programs (as well as Education Savings Accounts like the ones introduced here in Mississippi) allow students to apply the public tax funds associated with their education to any form of school they choose (homeschool, private, parochial, charter, etc.).
After 25 years of school choice vouchers, the Milwaukee Public School District still ranks among the lowest of large, urban public school districts in the United States. According to a NAEP score report, in 2013 the average Milwaukee fourth or eighth grade score ranged from 13 to 19 points lower than similar students in large urban districts across the country. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch hails Milwaukee as “a poster child for the failure of vouchers, charters, and competition.” She further asserts that after 25 years of competition policies, “if choice was the answer, Milwaukee should be at the top of the nation’s urban districts.”
The Post-Katrina Charter Solution
After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Recovery School District took over the vast majority of New Orleans’ public schools. New Orleans schools had reportedly been among the lowest performing in the nation. The natural disaster presented an opportunity to remake the education system from the ground up with aspirations of higher student achievement, greater accountability, and more efficient management. All three are promises often made by charter school operators. Thus, by 2011, the majority of schools in the Recovery School District became charter schools and few remained traditional public schools.
All schools in the Recovery School District have open enrollment. This means any student in Orleans Parish can attend any school within the Recovery School District, regardless of their residence. This is another manifestation of the competition model. Theoretically, students and their parents can choose the best school to attend regardless of their income or zip code. Proponents claim that when students are choosing the best schools for enrollment, the worst schools will improve or face closure. Thus, in theory competition would enable all schools to improve student achievement. However, data compiled in a Policy Brief by the Network for Public Education details that the Recovery School District has the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate in the state of Louisiana.
A further complication of competition is the shifting of power from parents to school administrators. Paul Pastorek, former State Superintendent of Education for the state of Louisiana, stated, “I think one of the toughest things for parents to adapt to is that there are no longer neighborhood schools, or, if there is a school in their neighborhood, it’s a charter that may not be able to enroll their child.” This speaks to what happens when schools are at maximum enrollment and must enact a lottery or some other system for determining which students to accept. In this sense, the schools choose which students to enroll, not the families.
Milwaukee and New Orleans are but two examples of competition at work in real school systems. Both of these have had long term policies based on the competition theory of school choice. Yet neither example has shown significant improvement in student achievement- for students exercising school choice, or for students in traditional public schools. School choice has faced similar setbacks in Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Florida. The problem is, this model of education reform tends to rely on the idea that competition alone can fix schools and ignores any other factors on a student’s performance. Family stress, poverty, and underfunded public schools are entirely ignored.
The removal of government rules and regulations is viewed by many conservative economists as eliminating cumbersome “red tape.” In the United States, deregulation of transportation, communications, energy, and finance have served as inspirations for groundwork in other fields. According to the late former Cato Institute chairman William Niskanen, deregulation has resulted in “expanded service, lower rates, and higher productivity” in certain industries, as well as a “general increase in productivity in the economy.”
“Special Case” Freedom in Nashville
The prospect of deregulation in education represents freedom from certain government mandates. No Child Left Behind, the Common Core State Standards, and other national and state mandates require certain guidelines be met in daily operations and in student testing. Critics of these mandates have suggested that exemptions to these regulations would improve education by granting schools more autonomy. Administrators and teachers would be empowered to set their own guidelines and achievement benchmarks based on local needs.
Such freedom and autonomy are usually extended only to charter schools. This “special case” provision seems to be a key component of the school choice movement. The idea is to set up theoretically attractive alternatives to public schools rather than deregulate all. It remains unclear whether contrasting opportunities for students would create “good schools” and “bad schools,” but what is clear is that competition requires contrast. In fact, some researchers have found charter schools “have a significant risk of leading to more segregation.”
In 2008, the Obama administration began to urge states to remove restrictions on charter schools. In fact, his administration withheld funding from states unless they removed restrictions for the establishment of charters as public entities. When these plans for targeting the nation’s “low performing” schools were first released, the National Center for Education Policy, warned in a brief that the plans’s accountability system was not substantiated by any legitimate research.
Nonetheless, the Tennessee Charter School Center and other major players with significant clout and funding have lobbied the Tennessee legislature to pass a law that allows charter schools denied locally to be approved by the state. Nashville parent and Metro Nashville Public School board member, Will Pinkston asserts that the “charter school movement has hijacked education policy.” Amy Frogge, another Metro Nashville Public School board member, has written about “special case” freedoms afforded to charter schools in Nashville. She has received complaints from parents of Nashville’s rePublic charter school students of lunch being taken away as punishment, denial of restroom privileges, students being taken off campus without parental consent, and excessive use of other punishments.
“No excuses” charter schools have been defined as schools where submission, obedience, and self-control are largely valued. “No excuses” refers to the belief that factors in a student’s life outside the school have no impact on their school performance. Thus, poor minority students and students with privileged backgrounds should perform similarly in an academic setting that is rigorous and uniform.
Traditional public schools are held to standards set by a state’s legislative bodies and the state’s board of education, under the guidance of the federal government, regarding procedures and expectations for the establishment of a positive school culture, proper handling of disciplinary actions, and even bullying prevention. In addition, traditional public schools are held accountable for providing equity and ensuring students maintain their civil rights. However, charter schools are granted a great deal of autonomy in setting their own policy which can lead to extreme, militaristic disciplinary policies and “no excuses” situations as evidenced by the “special case” freedoms granted to Nashville’s rePublic Charter Schools.
Mischief in Florida
Another problem with deregulation is the issue of decreased accountability for schools. Even if freedom from government mandates is extended to level the playing field with traditional public schools, it is almost certain such a release would lead to increased shenanigans. For instance, the Florida charter school law cited by our lawmakers as an exemplar has created a free-for-all system rife with financial malfeasance and neglect. “Some schools have turned total control over their staff and finances to for-profit companies,” leaving big decisions to the bottom line instead of children’s best interests. According to the Miami Herald, “That’s because Florida’s charter school laws — considered among the nation’s most charter school friendly — are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules.”
This lack of oversight has hurt voucher programs as well. For example, according to the Miami New Times, one case in the Florida vouchers program for students with disabilities went horribly wrong. “Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations,” including at least one condemned building near a liquor store and an “Asian massage parlor.” With no existing curriculum, 20 year old “teachers” improvised with blaxploitation video tapes, the principal administered methods of corporal punishment banned by nearby districts for three decades, and a teacher and student were even killed in an auto accident. “As is customary with schools that receive these vouchers,” reporter Garcia-Roberts writes, “the DOE didn’t inquire about” any of it.
That isn’t to say all school choice operators are corrupt. Clearly, many charter school administrators and teachers are trustworthy educators who have the best interests of their students at heart. But the nature of deregulation is to remove the watchdogs, so with school choice, any bad apples are more likely to operate without restriction.
Application of free market principles to schools is unpredictable
. Mississippians should be reminded: the concepts of competition and deregulation work well in industries where innovation with products can be accurately quantified and where failure for some is expected as a market adjustment. But schools grow human beings, not products. Some of the impact teachers leave on students can never be tallied up in quarterly reports. And applying the principles of the free market to human capital can have counterproductive social consequences. The free market mechanism for systemic improvement depends on having “winners” and “losers.” Thus, when competition and deregulation are applied to reform education, we create a society where sending some of our kids to failing schools is normal and necessary.
As education best practice shows, teaching and learning are specific to each individual teacher-student relationship, not spreadsheet commodities improved by the forces of supply and demand.
The people who know the most about how to educate Mississippi’s children are still Mississippi’s teachers.