If the dark cloud from our national tragedy has had any silver lining, it has been in bringing us closer together as Americans, regardless of our regional, political, racial/ethnic or other differences. We are a diverse nation but there is unity within our diversity. E pluribus unum, from many one.
Our regional and state-to-state differences within this overall unity are a source of strength. The genius of our system of federalism is that each state becomes kind of a laboratory of social policy. We can learn from each state’s experiences and either adapt what they are doing for our own use, or avoid policies that have proven not to work.
In education reform, Virginia has provided true leadership in adopting real content-rich, grade-by-grade standards for the public schools. Virginia took its stand in the early ‘90s when the standards-based reform movement was about to sink into a swamp of nonspecific, affective “outcomes,” and numerous states took note of Virginia’s insistence on teaching genuine academic content and followed suit. Two of the leaders in that movement are on this panel this morning – Lil Tuttle and Bill Bosher. And much as they may disagree on tuition tax credits or vouchers, they worked together in enacting Virginia’s Standards of Learning. When the State Board of Education was in transition from a Democratic administration to a Republican one, it was heartening to see appointees of Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Governor George Allen put aside their political differences and hammer out a solid SOL package.
But as other states have learned from Virginia, let me be so bold as to suggest that we can learn from other states. My job at the Lexington Institute has given me the opportunity to study for the past two years what is working to improve education in states across the land, from Arizona to Wisconsin and Ohio to New York and Washington, D.C. And let me just say it in a nutshell: Choice works. There is growing evidence from randomized studies done by Dr. Paul Peterson at Harvard University, among others, that where low-income families have been afforded the same opportunity that rich people have to choose their children’s schools, parental satisfaction with and involvement in education soars, and student achievement rises significantly.
As galling as it may be, Virginia can learn something from North Carolina. My friend Vernon Robinson has told you how the movement to public charter schools has taken off in Carolina. Now I don’t like to trail the Tar Heels in anything, from basketball to barbecue, but there’s North Carolina with more than 100 public charter schools now open, and here’s Virginia with just two, and one on the way at Hampton. (100 to 3!) Across the nation in many of the three-dozen states with charter schools, this form of choice within the government system has brought exciting changes.
Charter schools are not cut out of a cookie cutter mold – some offer classical education, or the Core Knowledge approach championed by Dr. Hirsch at UVa, but many are of the progressive or child-centered school often favored by the education establishment. Some are places where students follow a military-style discipline, as with the military charter school Mayor Jerry Brown has sponsored in Oakland. Some are places where students may study Latin and others are places they may prepare for specific jobs. Some are even run by for-profit companies, like the Edison Schools. What’s important is that families are free to choose what works best for their children. Not all of us respond to the same style of teaching or the same incentives. Charter schools accommodate our individuality.
In Virginia we have allowed the monopolistic side of our educational system to ride roughshod over individuals with a vision for charter schools. Not only does our notoriously weak charter-school law hand local school boards an absolute veto over charter school startups, it permits those boards to refuse even to consider applications for charter schools. In states with strong laws, by contrast, citizens have an appeal from adverse local board decisions, and they also have the option of going to other public chartering bodies. In some states, universities can issue the charter and oversee these innovative schools. That’s the case in Michigan and New York, for example.
Could charter schools be a tool for the next stage of reform triggered by the SOL? Consider: In Virginia, the Standards of Learning tests carry a threat of loss of accreditation and denial of diplomas a few more years down the road, and this has helped raise the overall level of achievement. Some schools have made remarkable progress—i.e., inner-city schools in Norfolk that have gone from single-digit passing rates to better than the 70 percent required for full accreditation. But the other side of the coin is that there are public schools in Virginia where the SOL scores actually declined in the first three years of SOL testing. In this very city, our capital city, there are a dozen elementary schools where 70 percent to as high as 90 percent of third-grade children fail the SOL English tests. Very simply they cannot read – and in several of those schools, scores actually have been falling since the start of testing in 1998. Where is the outrage? Where is the determined effort to save these children before they are so far behind they will never catch up?
Let me suggest a possible remedy. Virginia Commonwealth University has prided itself since its founding on being a great “urban university” that would immerse itself in curing community ills. What graver problem exists than this one? Why not strengthen the charter school law so that Virginia universities can convert failing K-12 schools into charter schools and uplift them? Yes, why not VCU charter schools in the heart of Richmond? (I would love to get VCU’s Bill Bosher back in the school superintendent business, at which he excelled.) If something like this is not the answer, I would appreciate someone saying today what the solution might be.
Choice solely within the government-controlled system is insufficient, especially when as in Virginia such choice is being severely limited by turf protection. Some of you may want to cover your ears because I am going to use the dreaded “v” word – the word that makes some politicians who claim to be for choice run for cover. Yes I am going to offer just a bit of the Voucher Monologues. (Vouchers are slips ofpaper backed by public money that consumers may use to purchase private services, as with housing, child care, job training, higher education – practically everything except the K-12 monopoly.) Virginia, take a look at what Florida has done with vouchers. When schools persistently fail the state tests down there, their families become eligible for a voucher to transfer to a participating private or parochial school, or they can move to a better-performing public school. When a Florida school flunks twice in a four-year period, vouchers kick in. Well, look at what happened after initial testing and 78 schools had earned their initial “F’s.” Those schools tossed faddish programs right out the window and went to proven practices. They provided one-on-one tutoring, after-school and Saturday classes. They addressed a problem common in disadvantaged communities – children moving from school to school during a year, by providing transportation to keep them anchored to a home school. And a year later when Florida tested again, not a single one of those 78 schools failed. All improved to passing levels, hence no vouchers.
Is it beyond belief that something similar might be a good next step of reform for the failing schools in Virginia — especially if the Supreme Court decides October 1 to take the Cleveland voucher case and next year decides that these vouchers constitute aid to individuals, not support for religion as contended by the monopolists who are anti-reform?
Finally, just a word about tuition tax credits, but not too much because I think the next panel will concentrate on that. This time I ask Virginians to look at Arizona and consider: Cannot good things happen for children when citizens are freed to use their own money for charitable good works? In 1997 Arizona enacted a $500 credit against state income taxes for contributions to organizations that award scholarships to students wishing to attend private elementary and secondary schools. The program survived judicial challenge. Last Monday, the Cato Institute in Washington issued a report on what effect this credit had just between 1998 and 2000. In short, the credit generated more than $32 million, which funded almost 19,000 scholarships awarded through more than 30 scholarship organizations. About four of every five scholarships went to students on the basis of financial need.
But don’t such tax credits take money away from public education? If you are of the National Education Association mindset and believe all money is public money (as the NEA actually argued in court), then you could reach that conclusion easily. Of course the credits do subtract from state revenue. But the flip side is that when a child leaves the public schools, the government is relieved of the cost of educating him or her. The Cato analysts carefully weighed loss versus gain and found that the Arizona credit has been revenue neutral.
The growth of homeschooling demonstrates the tremendous desire of Americans for educational freedom. Twenty-five years ago, there were only a few thousand home-schoolers in the entire nation; in many states they were regarded as outcasts if not criminals. Recently, a federal survey put the number of home-schoolers at 850,000 – and a truer calculation probably would be close to twice that, given that a dozen states classify such instruction as private schooling rather than homeschooling (and also considering that many homeschoolers are wary of government surveys). The government study did shed light on an interesting development: the growing diversification of homeschooling. The feds found that almost one-fourth of children who are homeschooled in America today are members of minority groups, including about 10 percent African-Americans and 9 percent Hispanics. Right here in Richmond, Gilbert and Gloria Wilkerson launched in 1998 the Network of Black Homeschoolers, which offers support for fellow black parents across America who are making this move. The old stereotype of homeschoolers as a tiny group of white fundamentalists or survivalists is long since outdated, if it ever had any validity.
Clearly, the demand for choice in education is huge and will not be denied. The question for policy-makers is whether to accommodate it and help children benefit from it, or to dig in to try to protect at all costs a monopoly that is failing to serve far too many children.
Find Archived Articles: