Article Published in The Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress
Plenty of evidence exists that Virginians are skeptical of the status quo that a government monopoly perpetuates in K-12 schooling and are open to fresh ideas about educating children..
Consider: A Commonwealth Education Poll conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers last spring found that half of Virginians favor vouchers (publicly funded scholarships) or tax credits that would help parents choose private or parochial schools for their children. Four in 10 were opposed. Young adults and minorities often ill-served by government-run schools were especially receptive to funding children instead of an entrenched system: 70 percent of Virginians under 29 favored vouchers, while African-Americans supported them 57 percent to 32 percent.
Yet school choice is virtually invisible in the contest for Governor between Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Mark Earley.
Warner, the Alexandria cellphone magnate who sends his own children to private schools, vows to battle all efforts, including tax credits, to “divert public dollars to private academies.” So money left in private pockets, uncollected by the government, is public money? Would that apply to tax breaks for, say, technology companies, too, or just tax breaks that enable poor children to obtain scholarships to escape failing government schools?
As for Earley (who sends his kids to public schools), he has endorsed a tax credit for contributions to scholarship organizations that award private scholarships to needy children, but he has done so in a meek single paragraph devoid of critical details, such as the amount of the proposed credit. Meanwhile, the former Attorney General has unbravely retracted his one-time endorsement of vouchers, contending that credits bring less of a threat than do vouchers of government intervention in private-school governance.
Vouchers may currently be problematic in Virginia because its state constitution contains vestiges of Blaine Amendment language that infected many states during a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry in the late 19th Century. Such provisions seek to prohibit even indirect public aid to religious schools. However, the legal climate could change early in the next Governor’s term after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of vouchers that have enabled 4,000 children to escape Cleveland’s miserable public schools. The High Court accepted the case for review September 24.
You might think a candidate for Governor who aspires to the mantle of education reformer might want at least to keep an open mind about vouchers being used, as under Governor Jeb Bush in Florida, to prod failing public schools to serve their children adequately. Seventy-eight Florida public schools faced losing students to vouchers last spring if they received a second “F” in state assessments; all 78 mustered the will, the energy, and the back-to-basics teaching methods to raise their scores enough to stave off vouchers. The threat of competition worked.
Overall, Virginia schools have made progress toward meeting the minimal Standards of Learning for which the state began testing in 1998, but too many actually have regressed. There are dozens of schools, mostly in inner cities, where upwards of 75 percent of third graders cannot read. If not vouchers, what’s to be the lifeline thrown to those children? Neither Warner nor Earley has said.
A plan to set up public charter schools in distressed education districts would be one possibility. But for that to happen, Virginia would need to amend its weak charter school law to allow multiple authorities, including universities or state-level entities, to approve charters, as opposed to local school boards having absolute veto power. Warner has said he supports public charter schools and other forms of public-school choice, such as magnets, but he has offered no blueprint. He’s playing it safe. So, too, apparently is Earley, who doesn’t even mention charter schools in his education plan, though he has supported them in the past.
One thing the two candidates both have in their education plans is that juiciest of bon-bons to keep the education establishment fat and happy: Reduce class sizes. The eminent Harvard education researcher Caroline Minter Hoxby reiterates in the September issue of School Reform News that “class size reduction has no effect on student achievement.” It is the course preferred by teacher unions because “each teacher has less work and more teachers have to be hired.” But if small class sizes were the answer, Virginia should be sitting pretty. According to 1999 figures from the National Education Association, Virginia is tied with New York State for the sixth-lowest pupil-teacher ratio among the 50 states. Virginia’s (and New York’s) average of 14.1 pupils per teacher is 15.1 percent below the national average, according to the Public Policy Institute of New York State.
Reducing class size is not reform, especially in Virginia. But then neither Earley nor Warner has shown they merit the mantle of education reformer. Perhaps after the votes are safely counted, the winner eventually will.
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