Hoosiers Show the Way

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A nice piece recently published in the venerable Economist reports some good news out of the state of Indiana. The Hoosier state, under the enlightened leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, has enacted a series of school reforms — reforms that are paying off handsomely for the children of the state.

The reforms crafted by Daniels and his superintendent of schools are interesting, among other reasons, because they are so wide-ranging. They include:

  • creating a voucher program for poor students;
  • encouraging and empowering more charter schools;
  • enhancing the autonomy of school principals to fire the obvious deadwood and respond to parents’ legitimate pressures;
  • requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate data on actual student performance.

Naturally, the rentseeking teachers unions hotly oppose these reforms (as they oppose almost all reforms, of any kind). Their position is: how dare these miserable, ungrateful, unwashed parents of kids in failing public schools insist on their right to send their kids elsewhere — or gain the right to see pertinent facts about the performance of the public schools?

The piteous cry is, “What is this country coming to?”

Of course, the deepest of the Indiana reforms is the establishment of a voucher program — which may well become the biggest in the country. Despite the unions’ vicious (and also morally vile) jihad against school reform in general and school choice in particular, there are now 32 voucher programs spread over 16 states. These programs educate only a small portion (210,000 students in total) of all America’s K-12 students, but they represent a growing threat to the dysfunctional status quo.

The anti-voucher forces trot out the usual lies: vouchers drain resources from public schools; they violate the separation of church and state. The replies are obvious. For every student who leaves a public school to attend a private one, yes, the district loses money, but it also saves the money it would have spent on that selfsame student. Apparently, unionized teachers can’t do simple arithmetic. Big surprise.

Further, the Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers given directly to parents (who can decide to use them at religious, or atheist, private schools) do not violate the separation of church and state — no more than Pell Grants and the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which have always been usable at religious colleges. Apparently, unionized teachers don’t know history, either.

In fact, the voucher amount is usually much smaller, per student, than what is spent by public school districts. The Economist draws the obvious conclusion: vouchers save taxpayers’ money.

But I regard that as the least important advantage of vouchers. The most important, the crucial, advantage is that voucher programs (and other forms of school choice) rescue kids from stultified lives of needless underachievement.




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Governments Finally Outsourcing

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A report out on a small Michigan city points the way for other school districts to deal with their looming fiscal problems.

The city is Highland Park, which faces a major problem with its school district, consisting of three schools and 1,000 students. The system ranks near the bottom in the state academically, and it is facing a fiscal fiasco.

In fact, only a wretched 22% of the system’s third-grade students passed the state’s reading exams, and a pathetic 10% of them passed the math exams, last year. Only 10% of its high school students tested proficient on reading, and 0% — yes, precisely none of them — tested proficient in math.

This, in a district that last year spent over $16,500 per student, which is 80% more than the average per student expenditure for the state (which last year was about $9,200 per pupil)!

Moreover, despite the fact that its student population has plummeted by two-thirds in the past five years, the district’s deficit has exploded — reaching over $11 million last year.

So the Highland Park school district has taken a bold step: it is borrowing a tool commonly employed in private industry, outsourcing — the process by which one company hires a second company to handle some part of its operations. For example, a major retailer (such as Walmart or Costco) will often hire industrial janitorial firms to handle the cleaning of their stores, rather than hiring janitors within their own companies.

Outsourcing has a number of benefits, most importantly improving efficiency and increasing accountability. It improves efficiency because the company that outsources operations will be able to hire a company that specializes in that aspect of business. It improves accountability, because if the company outsourcing doesn’t see an improvement in that aspect of its business, it can terminate the service and hire another contracting firm to do the job. This puts pressure on the contracted company to do the job properly and within the price negotiated.

Highland Park is outsourcing its entire school system to the charter school company Leona Group.

The Leona Group runs 54 schools in five states. While almost half the students in them don’t score at standard levels, that is on average better than the public schools they replace. And in Michigan, 19 of 22 schools that Leona runs do meet state standards. Moreover, Leona’s contract is for five years, so if it doesn’t dramatically improve student outcomes, it can easily be replaced. That is the missing factor in district-run schools: accountability.

Charter schools have some major advantages over district-run schools. While the charters are overseen and funded by the district, they have substantial freedom when it comes to setting union contracts, curricula development, and teacher standards. And precisely because they are not controlled by teachers unions, they are usually much less costly to the taxpayer.

Indeed, Leona Group will charge the district only $7,100 per student, plus an annual management fee of $780,000 — dramatically less than what the district is currently paying.

Public school outsourcing is a growing trend. Highland Park is the second district in Michigan to outsource its schools to charter schools. Several districts in Georgia have also done the same thing. Of course New Orleans has already converted most of its schools to charters (which has already produced a dramatic increase in graduation rates) and even allows its students to use the newly issued state educational vouchers.

Other districts are now eyeing this novel idea — novel, that is, only in the world of government; it has been a staple of private industry management forever. In Michigan alone there are 48 districts in fiscal peril (with a collective $429 million in annual deficits).

Naturally, the teachers unions are fighting outsourcing fang and claw, but given the looming financial disaster, the pressure for extensive education outsourcing is increasing rapidly.

Outsourcing district-run schools to charter school companies is a tool that many districts can and should consider, especially as more and more of our cities declare bankruptcy.




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Schools: What Kind of Reform?

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Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.




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