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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Public School Alternatives – Voucher Programs Are By Far The Best

There are three important alternatives to public primary school education being tried in the country: 1) Educational Management Organizations (EMO); 2) Charter Schools; and 3) Voucher Programs. EMOs are private companies which contract with local school boards to run individual schools or entire school districts. Charter schools are publically-financed institutions which operate independently from local school boards, but are chartered by State authorities with which they enter into a contract. Voucher programs offer a fixed amount of money to go towards the tuition at any private school of the family’s choice.

All three alternatives have promise, and all have their advocates and detractors. I, with no hesitation, am a strong proponent of private education and the voucher system. I will discuss all three alternatives and then make my concluding arguments for a voucher system.

Educational Management Organizations

This for-profit system has the following advantages, cited from “Trends and Best Practices for Educational Management Organizations” by WestEd, a non-profit educational research organization http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/PP-03-02.pdf

Access to Capital for Research and Development

Money allows schools to change everything they are doing, from curriculum to technology, training, and student assessment. These types of changes do not come without a price tag, and public schools just do not have the funding available to make sweeping changes like this. For-profit school management companies can bring money and organization to the table in the form of venture capital, be it from the sale of stock, from senior management, from a venture-capital firm, or from philanthropic individu­als. This money can be used to fund research and development (R&D) of, for example, rich, compelling curriculum systems, powerful professional development, easy to use and renewable technologies, accessible, comprehensive information systems, and competitive lobbying systems

Incentives to Invest in R&D

One of the biggest differences between publicly run schools and for-profit school management companies is the ability and incentive to invest in R&D. Public-sector investment in education R&D, although difficult to es­timate, is about .03 percent of its overall budget, while for-profit firms often spend on average 100 times that percentage. Without R&D, public education cannot hope to under­stand or improve its practices.

Efficiencies and Effectiveness Resulting From Scale

Because of their incentives to innovate, private busi­nesses can make more effective use of scale than public schools. In essence, the model of any successful business is to produce quality products and services at reasonable prices or be forced out of business. This pressure is not the same with public schools. Most public districts are either too small or too large — too small to afford the kinds of administrative support they need or so large that they become bogged down by their own bureau­cracy. Yet even the largest school districts lack the scale of a large corporation. Were such a corporation to exist within education, it could bring with it resources that could be used to build whatever support systems are necessary to make their schools run better.

Curricular, Instructional, and Programmatic Diversity

Each EMO seeks to create a distinctive brand with which it can distinguish itself from other competitors and highlight the values of its unique model to school districts and charter schools. Because each EMO seeks to distinguish itself through relentless focus on its unique brand, the collection of multiple EMOs brings diversity to contractors, such as school districts. The freedom and incentives of EMOs to provide distinctive instructional programs, employee contracts, and the like, yield collec­tive diversity among EMOs, even though every school run by a particular EMO may be quite similar.

Internal Control

The senior managers of EMOs have more control over the internal operations of the schools they manage than do senior managers in school districts. The largest differences between school districts and EMOs is in personnel practices, profes­sional development, and managerial practices. In terms of personnel practices, EMOs have wider latitude in hiring, compensation, and deployment of teaching and support staff. They can, for example, hire for fixed terms and renew contracts only for those teachers judged to be effective, something public schools cannot do as freely. They also have the ability to utilize merit-based pay, paying more to teachers with specialized knowl­edge and opening up more career options to effective teachers.

Incentives to Improve Student Performance

Because of the incentives that EMOs face to satisfy customers (parents and any school district or charter school they contract with), EMOs aggressively pursue performance. In most instances, that involves student academic performance, parental satisfaction, and financial management. Given the current vagaries of state-level standards and achievement tests and disputes over ap­propriate comparison groups, EMO schools appear on average to be doing as well as or slightly better than non-EMO schools at delivering improvements in student achievement, depending on whose data and interpreta­tions are considered

Charter Schools

Charter schools are based on three principles: 1) Accountability; 2) Choice; 3) Autonomy. Schools once chartered by the state are directly accountable to it. If they do not meet their contractual obligations, they will be closed. The boards of charter schools are free to determine their curricula, teachers, and educational programs, all of which are submitted for approval by the state. This gives parents an opportunity to select the charter school which best suits them; gives teachers a chance to teach in that educational environment in which they are most comfortable; and gives school boards the right to apply their educational vision as long as it fits within state guidelines and regulations. Charter schools, once accredited, are autonomous and independent, free from the bureaucratic hurdles and red tape which plague most public school systems.

As can be seen, the differences between EMO and Charter Schools are few. Principally EMOs function differently from charter schools created in order to carry out a particular teaching pedagogy; most charter schools are mission-oriented, while EMOs and other for-profit institutions are market-oriented. This market orientation increases efficiency and accountability.

Voucher Programs

Voucher programs are designed to allocate public funds for private education. That is, a family which wants to opt out of the public school system can receive a voucher for a given amount ($6-12,000) which will go towards paying the tuition of a private school, usually a religious institution whose fees fall within that range. The advantages are clear: Leaving the public school system, whether the traditional system, charter school program, or EMO program, permits the eligible family to leave what most critics agree is a bureaucratically tangled, inefficient, and politically-influenced system. When a family chooses a private school, they can truly choose the curriculum, teachers, and environment which suits them. They can select a highly competitive school which provides the highest level of academic rigor; or they can choose a religious school which integrates faith into the curriculum.

Both charter schools and EMO-run schools are contracted by the state, and no matter how much they claim autonomy from it, these schools are beholden to political pressures. If a school in its choice of curriculum or teachers runs afoul of parents, community, or school district – for example introducing a particular point of view on life, evolution, or simple economic theory – the political pressure that can and most likely will be brought by larger vested interests will be significant. If charter schools exist within a unionized school district, they will most certainly unionize them with the resultant and predictable negative effect on teacher performance. Charter schools are required to accept all students on a first-come, first-served basis, which means that intellectual ability and academic performance are compromised. Although most charter schools require a serious engagement of parents which in turn supposes a family-oriented responsibility, these eager families may still have under-qualified children, thus creating a hodge-podge student body. Private schools can be uniform in their selection process.

Under the voucher system, parents can select the school which has the right balance of educational opportunities and facilities. For parents with athletic children, they can choose schools with better sports facilities. If the children have musical, theatrical, or artistic talents they can select the school best for them. For-profit EMO schools to meet the bottom line may cut corners on facilities and focus only on the basic contractual agreement on academic performance.

My Choice - Vouchers

Voucher programs are the best way to solve the educational crisis in public elementary education today. In addition to the distinct advantages enumerated above, voucher programs cost the taxpayer far less than either traditional schooling or charter/EMO education. Recent estimates of the Cato Institute have put the average per student spending in large metropolitan areas near $27,000. As above, voucher programs cost far less. Whether traditional, charter, or EMO schools predominate in a school district, administrative costs will still remain high. School systems have long been repositories for political jobs, a patronage system which has limited innovation and increased costs everywhere.

Detractors of voucher programs have asked what will happen to those children who remain – those that do not take advantage of the offer. However, why should any family not take advantage? While there will always be families which are so marginalized that they will never understand or be able to take advantage of such programs, but community organizations and churches are there precisely to guide, nurture, and support individual families to make good choices. Perhaps most importantly, voucher programs help those poor and disadvantaged families who have motivation, responsibility and desire, but few funds to help them realize their aspirations.

Others critics have said that voucher programs may encourage radical religious education. A conservative Muslim family may opt for a madrassa a school which presents secular information within a religious framework. This is an anti-democratic argument in a country which prizes freedom of religious expression. The United States is also a profoundly religious country and many Christian families would choose a conservative educational option if they could.

Other critics have said that public money is being spent for private gain. This is not true at all because the average voucher value is below the tuition of private schools who, in the case of Catholic schools for example, subsidize these new students from church funds. They do this willingly because these children will be educated within their particular religious environment.

Finally, yet other detractors have suggested that new private schools are likely to spring up with poor academic standards and whose only interest is tuition. While this may be true, there is no reason why the individual consumer – the family – cannot intelligently assess the value of the school as he/she does when buying health care, cars, or peanut butter. There is a cogent argument for accreditation, and I would not oppose this.

In conclusion both charter schools and for-profit EMO schools offer a step forward on the path to privatization of education. They have forged alliances with the public sector which provides them a certain autonomy and freedom from outside interference; but as mentioned above, this autonomy is partial and imperfect. There is a strong movement for home-schooling as an alternative to public education; but this is the least attractive alternative. Most home-schooling parents do so because of religious or political reasons – they want to control the education of their children – but even with the often complex support network they devise, they can never give their children the diverse and rigorous academic preparation that a good private school can.

So, let it be vouchers. Voucher programs, in addition to providing families with real choice, are excellent ways to unveil the retrograde influence of teachers unions. Right now, the battle lines on voucher programs are drawn between free-choice advocates and teachers unions which represent the status quo. That is, a good public fight between the advocates for innovation, free choice, and educational progress and those whose goal it is – or at least it would seem – to protect jobs and benefits.

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