Saturday, April 5, 2008

The following piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

According to New Hampshire Statutes



School Boards, Transportation and Instruction of Pupils

Section 189:1-a

189:1-a Duty to Provide Education. – It shall be the duty of the school board to provide, at district expense, elementary and secondary education to all pupils who reside in the district until such time as the pupil has acquired a high school diploma or has reached age 21, whichever occurs first; provided, that the board may exclude specific pupils for gross misconduct or for neglect or refusal to conform to the reasonable rules of the school, and further provided that this section shall not apply to pupils who have been exempted from school attendance in accordance with RSA 193:5.
Source. 1969, 356:10. 1973, 72:28. 1975, 22:1. 1983, 84:1, eff. July 23, 1983.

School Choice – Now More Than Ever

April 5, 2008; Page A8
This week's revelation that 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities have high school graduation rates below 50% surely saddened many. But it surprised few people attuned to the state of U.S. public education. Proponents of education choice have long believed that dropout rates fall when families can pick the schools best suited for their children.

So news that Sol Stern, a veteran advocate of school choice, is having second thoughts about the ability of market forces to improve education outcomes is noteworthy. Mr. Stern explains his change of heart in the current issue of the indispensable City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Manhattan Institute. And his revised views on the school choice movement warrant a response.

Inside of two decades, charter school enrollment in the U.S. has climbed to 1.1 million from zero. Two tiny voucher programs in Maine and Vermont blossomed into 21 programs in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Tuition tax credits, once puny and rare, are now sizeable and commonplace. The idea that teacher pay should be based on performance, not just seniority, is gaining ground. Not bad for a small band of education reformers facing skepticism from the liberal media and outright hostility from well-funded, politically connected heavies like the National Education Association.

So I was surprised to see these impressive school choice gains diminished by Mr. Stern, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute who has spent so many years chronicling them.

Mr. Stern does allow that "the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged," liberating low-income families from failing schools. But he says that social-change movements need to be attentive to "facts on the ground" and that recent developments "suggest that markets in education may not be a panacea – and that we should reexamine the direction of school reform."

As an example, Mr. Stern cites the Milwaukee voucher program. "Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tied to any urban school district in the country, Milwaukee's public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates," he writes. "Most voucher students are still benefitting, true; but no 'Milwaukee miracle,' no transformation of the public schools has taken place."

Seeking panaceas and miracles is setting the bar for success unreasonably high. The most immediate goal of market-oriented reformers is to offer respite to poor families with kids in the worst schools. And Mr. Stern acknowledges that those students with access to vouchers and charters are in a much better situation than they would be otherwise.

His larger argument is that choice has been ineffective in improving surrounding public school systems, but that is a dubious conclusion at best. No fewer than four authoritative studies of Milwaukee's voucher program exist, the most recent published last year by Martin Carnoy of Stanford University. While none of the Milwaukee studies have found huge improvements from the existence of a voucher program, all concluded that public schools are responding to the competitive pressure and do better.

Similarly, studies of Florida's A+ program, which gives students in chronically failing public schools a voucher to attend a private school, found that the threat of losing students caused public schools to improve performance on the state assessment test. There are four such studies available, and all show a positive competitive response from the public school system.

Other research has assessed how competition from charter schools affects traditional public schools. The University of Washington's National Charter School Research Project identified 12 such surveys. Seven showed significant positive effects from competition; three showed no effect; and two showed negative effects. Once again a preponderance of the evidence suggests that expanded choice and competition improve educational outcomes.

In Mr. Stern's view, education reformers would do better to de-emphasize choice and focus instead on improving curriculums and teacher quality. The reality is that the former fuels the latter. Researchers at the Urban Institute, by no means a bastion of conservatives, recently collected information on how public schools respond to competitive pressure. It turns out that one response is to put in place instructional reforms, including more rigorous standards. In other words, instructional reform is a product of competitive pressure and is less likely to occur in the absence of school choice.

It's also worth noting that public school choice has always existed in the form of residential choice. The problem is that not all families have the means to move into the neighborhoods with better schools. One goal of reformers is to make choice more equitable. The fact that vouchers and charters have been unable to completely transform the system inside of two decades does not mean public education is immune to market forces. School choice is clearly making a difference for the better, which justifies expanding it, not abandoning it.

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