Wednesday, June 20, 2007

From Charters To Vouchers We Need Them In Detroit by Akindele Akinyemi

I was back up in Lansing today speaking to lawmakers about the urgent need for expanding charters in Detroit. While I am at the table with these lawmakers in crafting policies that will benefit those proponents of educational options I am still finding some legislators who are skeptical about charter schools.

This is because they are afraid of backlash from their constituents.

Many supporters of public charter schools are beginning to follow my lead for additional charters in Detroit and urban areas across Michigan. The need for choice that allow disadvantaged parents to place their children in charter schools at public expense. Since charter schools are funded by tax payers and are a wonderful example of parental school choice, why do we have ignorant grassroots people in Detroit and ignorant lawmakers?

Before we examine this, let’s define charter schools and parent school choice. What are charter schools?

Charter schools, by definition, are public schools. They operate independently of public school boards and administrators, but they are funded with public tax dollars. Charter school laws are different in each State; Michigan has a strong charter law.

Is the fact that charter schools are “public” schools significant? Yes and no. Charter schools operate independently from the traditional government run public school system, but are funded and regulated to varying degrees by state governments. In our view, the only significance of them being “public” schools, is that they cannot be religious schools, because that would violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.

The key characteristic of charter schools is that every child is there voluntarily. If more children want to attend a school than its capacity, admission is based on a lottery. Charter schools are also required to accept special education students. The funding for special education services follows the child to the school. Charter schools are examples of parental school choice. Parents are empowered to decide which school is best for their child, and the public tax dollars allocated for educating the child follow the child to the school of choice. Therefore, parents control the funding of charter schools. Charter schools must react to parents desires and children’s needs or the parent will take the child elsewhere (a traditional public school, or another charter school). If this happens, the charter school loses the funding associated with that child. This is true accountability, - accountability to parents!

Parental school choice, referred to above, is simply the concept that parents, and disadvantaged parents in particular, must be allowed to choose the school most appropriate to educate their child (public or private). When they make that choice, the public tax dollars allocated for educating their child must follow the child to the school of choice. If the child leaves the choice school the funding also leaves. Charter schools are one example of choice. The more common usage of the word choice is to refer to public funding for private schools (religious or non-religious). Now when we talk about public funding of religious schools has to be done with vouchers that parents control in order to be constitutional. Tax credit subsidized scholarships are another vehicle to provide parental school choice. Supporters of parental school choice believe disadvantaged parents in our urban cities, in substantial majorities, care about the education of their children and can learn to evaluate the quality of the schools their children attend. Implementation of parental school choice changes our urban public education system from an institution called the “public education system” and turns it upside down. It becomes a child-centered organization with parents empowered as full partners in the education process.

Our One Network believes in urban public school reform in Urban Michigan. We believe strongly that only by breaking down the bureaucratic monopoly of the urban public school system will urban public education ever be substantially reformed. If an urban district has substantial numbers of charter schools, they contribute to breaking down this monopoly by providing choices for parents and creating competitive pressures to force the public school system to reform.

Given that charter schools empower parents and can drive improvement of urban public schools, why do we need to take the next step: tax funded vouchers for disadvantaged children to attend private schools? Many charter school advocates support parental school choice if implemented in public charter schools, but oppose vouchers that allow disadvantaged children to attend private schools. The reasons for this opposition vary:

Some object to public dollars going to religious schools;

There are concerns about accountability with private schools;

Some think private schools may teach “hate”, contributing to ethnic divisions, segregation, etc.;

The belief is “public education”, as a social concept and the conversation that private schools are not part of “public” education;

Concerns about the quality of private schools without the oversight of a public regulatory agency.

Let’s briefly responds to the above points. The constitutional issue of public tax dollars funding vouchers for private schools (including religious schools) when the parent makes the decision of where to use the voucher has been settled. The US Supreme Court, in the Zelman vs. Harris case in 2002, decided this matter in favor of vouchers. As a practical matter, the success of publicly funded vouchers for parochial schools in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida has resulted in public opinion across the country being at least 70% in favor of vouchers for religious schools.

The more current argument by charter school opponents of vouchers is that “society” does not have adequate opportunity to regulate what goes on in private schools. They are concerned whether the “public interest” is served when there is not a public body that can closely regulate the curriculum, testing and operations of private schools. Initially these may seem reasonable concerns. If public dollars are going to a private school, why not have a strong regulatory authority?

We strongly caution against assuming local or state education departments can provide sensible regulatory oversight. The reality is that state education departments have had complete regulatory control over urban schools and have utterly failed to regulate and/or operate urban public schools. Most would agree, that on average, private schools, (even low cost parochial schools), in urban districts do a far better job of educating disadvantaged children than do urban public schools. Too often in our society the regulators turn out to be the greater problem, not those they are supposed to be regulating.

Remember that parents send their children to charter schools or voucher accepting private schools on a completely voluntary basis. Parents are the ultimate regulatory authority and should be trusted to make educational decisions for their children as they make decisions about housing, food, Pre-K and college education, medical care, etc.

The issue of teaching hate is valid. For example, Cleveland voucher program has a specific prohibition on any school from teaching hate. One Network believes this is a clear regulation, and is easy to enforce. A regulatory authority that determines a school teaches hate can immediately shut off funding to that school. In comparison, it is virtually impossible to close a failing urban public school even in the face of unsafe conditions, violence inflicted upon students and teachers, dismal test scores, low graduation rates, etc. Pulling the plug on a hate teaching private school is simple, quick and will gain public support easily.

One Network would make in two critical but simple demands on public education:
Public education must effectively prepare even our most disadvantaged children to lead a productive life, to be educated participants in our democracy, to be knowledgeable consumers, effective parents and productive members of the work force;

Public education must be funded by public tax revenue. Any school that effectively educates our disadvantaged children, in a non-discriminatory way, deserves public funding. There is no requirement that the definition of public education be restricted to a government operated monopolistic bureaucracy. In fact, when opponents of parental school choice say they favor “public education” they are really saying that they support the public education system. Their concerns seem to be with the system, not with the children.

A final concern about the quality of education in private schools is a reasonable concern for anyone concerned for our disadvantaged children. First, we must be careful not to let the “perfect be the enemy of the good”. Opponents of vouchers seem to hold both charter schools and voucher accepting schools to a far higher standard than urban public schools. No one should expect charter schools and voucher accepting schools to be perfect but there is clear evidence in our inter-cities that private schools do a far better job than public schools, even though their funding is one-third to one-half as much. Given that these schools effectively educate many of our most disadvantaged children, how can we not encourage their growth and fund them?

Now why should charter school proponents also advocate vouchers? For three important reasons.

Politically, vouchers drive the expansion of charter schools - in most of the country, only the threat of vouchers program has made the public school monopoly and politicians accept charter schools.

Vouchers are necessary if we want to fund parochial and independent schools. Since parents make the decision to send their child to the parochial school, not a governmental organization, this is constitutional. Since parents make a voluntary decision, parochial schools work and we need additional opinions for inter-city parents, vouchers to private schools (religious or not) should be implemented.

Vouchers minimize “death by regulation”. In Detroit and elsewhere the education establishment is attempting to regulate public charter schools to such an extent that they cannot operate independently of the public school monopoly. Teachers unions advocate laws to require charter school teachers to join their union, limits are imposed on the number and/or size of charter schools, and detailed, unnecessary regulations are implemented to distract charter schools from their educational mission. Funding is unfair and disparities are increasing. Vouchers, which are controlled by parents and spread among a wide variety of private schools make “death by regulation” much harder to achieve.

In our view both solutions - vouchers for private schools - and public charter schools are necessary to break up the urban school monopoly. Both should be implemented and/or expanded. Only then will all of our children, even the most disadvantaged, have an equal opportunity to an excellent education. We should disregard grassroots activists as well as state lawmakers who do not want an expansion of educational options in Detroit or other urban areas in Michigan.

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