Now THIS is Scary....

ROMNEY POLICY COULD SQUELCH LOCAL CONTROL

I do not consider this to be a partisan website, and it’s not a place where I intend to discuss the upcoming presidential election a whole lot. But I saw this article in the New York Times. It has to do with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s plans to overhaul the federal government’s role in K-12 education: Vouchers.

Oh boy. Romney has had a reputation as a moderate and as a common-sense business leader. But he may just be – in terms of education policy, anyway – as out of touch with reality as the misguided groups pushing to divert public money to private schools here in South Carolina.

There’s a lot to look at here. So here goes:

**From the article: “I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” Mr. Romney said, adding that families’ freedom to vote with their feet “will hold schools responsible for results.”

This is terrific rhetoric. After all, what policy-maker would argue with the idea of parents holding public schools accountable?

But things are not so simple, as anyone involved in public education knows. It might seem ugly to talk about, but the reality is that a lot of struggling students are struggling because….their parents either aren’t adequately involved or make lousy decisions.

Newspapers these days are full of articles about neglected and abused children, while many public school teachers can tell unfortunate stories about unresponsive parents and children who practically raise themselves.

Meanwhile, how far does Romney want to take the idea of “unprecedented” choice for parents? For example, if they are fundamentalist Muslims, will Romney and like-minded private school choice advocates applaud those parents’ “freedom” to send their kids to academies that teach an anti-Western ideology?

 

**The article suggests that Romney’s approach represents a move away from “top-down” federal involvement in local education matters. But is this true?

Romney apparently intends to use Title I money to fund his voucher scheme. A little background: Title I is a decades-old federal government program that gives financial support to schools that serve a high percentage of poor students.

As with any such program, Title I comes with strings attached and plenty paperwork, documentation, and hoop-jumping.

But it affords local school districts a good deal of flexibility in the ways they serve needy children. Districts can use Title I money for after-school programs, for staff to work directly with students who are behind in reading, for efforts to ramp up parental involvement, and so on.

Federal programs may have a bad name with some – and, again, there is a bureaucratic element to Title I. But the money that it provides is critical to many school districts’ efforts to zero in on students’ needs and to come up with common-sense solutions to serve them.

 

**Some will say: Obviously, Title I must not work since so many poor kids drop out of school.

Well, there are a lot of ways of looking at things. No one claims that the achievement gap – the much-discussed academic disparity between affluent and poor children (and, very generally speaking, between white and minority students) – is not real. I’ve been around plenty of public schools, and the gap between high-achieving and struggling students can be, quite honestly, shocking.

Does that mean Title I itself is a failure? I don’t think so.

Saying that things can be worse isn’t exactly a compelling argument, I realize, but think about it: An inner city high school might have a high dropout rate; but without the sort of interventions and programs funded through Title I money, the dropout rate might be much higher.

An elementary school in a poor rural community might have low test scores; but without Title I money, that school might have to cut an after-school program that gives children extra help with reading and, indeed, helps boost test scores (not to mention providing working families with much-needed daycare help). So, yeah, things could be worse.

Meanwhile, there are success stories in tough schools and among poor students that can inspire and instruct. My guess is that Title I and other programs aimed at helping poor families have a role in many of those stories.

 

**As for vouchers....

Margaret Spellings, who served as education secretary for Republican President George W. Bush, had this to say: “Vouchers and choice as the drivers of accountability — obviously that’s untried and untested.”

The studies that have been conducted on private school choice programs seem to provide incomplete or conflicting data.

Paul Thomas, who teaches education at Furman University and has written about the topic, says that most pro-voucher studies are not peer-reviewed – meaning that the authors don’t submit their work to serious academic analysis. As I have found, such studies may be funded by organizations dedicated to promoting private school schools and lack any serious depth or balance. 

Thomas told me that, so far, the evidence reveals that among schools serving children of a similar demographic, outcomes are nearly identical between public schools, charters, and private schools.

 

**Converting Title I money to vouchers also sounds like a logistical mess. How in the world would it work?

Would all Title I money be set aside for vouchers, or only the amount that could actually be used? In other words, what if a poor child doesn't get into the private school of his or her "choice" -- where would the money set aside for that child go? Back to the public school district where the student will remain? To the state? 

Setting up a voucher program sounds simple enough. Indeed, it's probably more accountable in many ways than the "universal tax credit" plan that has been pushed here in South Carolina. But mixing funds that have been set aside to support huge blocks of a district's student population with a plan to "backpack" money for individual families sounds like a good way to lose track of taxpayer money and/or create new and more convoluted layers of bureaucracy.

 

**Back to the argument that Romney wants to take on the “top-down” role of the federal government in education: The New York Times article notes that Romney’s plan might let states decide if they want to convert Title I money to a voucher program.

The idea of a “states rights” system will have some appeal with voters, I’m sure. But looked at a different way, turning over control of Title I funding to a state education department, in fact, takes control away from local communities.

Not only does Title I money, again, give individual districts and schools important options, but what if leaders at the local level believe private school choice is a bad idea?

What if one community (a large city, most likely) has plentiful private school “choices” and another community (such as a rural SC) has very few?

Shouldn’t locally elected education leaders have the leeway to set policy for what works best in their communities? Or does Romney favor a truly “top-down” approach that forces vouchers on communities where such a plan is unpopular and unlikely to work?

 

South Carolina is of course a GOP stronghold, and Romney is almost guaranteed to carry the state. Still, I sure hope that voters who care about public education will examine the candidates’ stand on private school choice and other issues – and that whether it’s the presidential race or a local state senate seat, they will be willing to go beyond a straight-party ticket. 

Posted on June 19th in School Policy

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