Wednesday, October 06, 2004

COLUMN -- A chance to get education right

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:43 AM |  

Pioneer Press
October 6, 2004

Matt Entenza's grandparents got it right. As their grandson tells it, despite two poor harvests they pooled their limited resources with fellow immigrants and built a town school, recognizing that education was vital to a better life for their children and grandchildren.

Three generations later, state Rep. Matt Entenza forgets the ancestral wisdom of "local" public education and calls for more education funding by a centralized state bureaucracy. At the Sept. 24 "Minnesota Education Summit," (sponsored by the Alliance for Student Achievement) that call received standing applause.

Ironically, many presentations at this gathering of establishment educators spoke to the negative impact on K-12 education of decisions, policies and inactions of the government entities trusted for education funding and policy leadership.

The same week as the Education Summit, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, with the Partnership for Choice in Education and the Minnesota Citizens League, opened its Educational Speaker Series, School Choice from a National Perspective."

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce, described how the Milwaukee business community played a large role in the battle for increased school choice.
Admitting that there is still much to do, Sheehy noted that the Milwaukee Public Schools provide low-income parents with more high-quality school choices than any urban system in the country. High-performing public schools, charters sponsored by the city, universities and the district, and hundreds of choice-eligible schools are showing real educational gains for children, notably children of color.

Which brings us to the issue that both divides and potentially unifies historically opposing educational philosophies — the battle over school choice. Milwaukee demonstrates that school choice and a strong public school system need not be a schizophrenic dichotomy — if the honest goal is more high-performing schools and graduates, not political control of the system.

Choice matters. Without it, Sheehy contends, education reform is "glacial, unpredictable and easily sidetracked." Reform is subject to lobbying efforts and dollars, political muscle and election year politics — which sounds a lot like the issues eloquently raised at the Minnesota Education Summit.

The keynote address by Arizona State Regents Professor of Education David Berliner provided empirical evidence that high-stakes testing, as "sanctified" by the No Child Left Behind Act and Minnesota's testing program, is an ineffective way to improve student achievement and creates a good deal of individual "collateral damage."

Joel Alter, who co-managed the Legislative Auditor study of the No Child Left Behind Act, presented the state cost of complying with NCLB, which fueled the general attitude of attendees that the legislation is a "disaster" and an "unfunded mandate."

John Gunyou, state finance commission under Gov. Arne Carlson, skillfully skewered the current administration's budget, especially decisions about education funding.

Ric Dressen of the Governor's Task Force on Minnesota School Finance Reform didn't recommend a solution for school funding problems. The task force recommended a process to start to find solutions with the bureaucratic disclaimer that its "final" report is but the "beginning" of education finance reform in Minnesota.

In similar noncommittal language, state Rep. Barb Sykora spoke about standards that are "compromises" and "the fairest we could come up with," about program evaluations "over a number of years," about "proceeding carefully" to find "10- to 20-year solutions" through "two- to three-year pilot programs." Scant reassurance for concerned parents with children in public schools right now.

Two groups. One goal. Two approaches. One chance to get it right.

To achieve the goal of high-performing schools and graduates, the government education establishment must accept that increased funding will never change the basic "glacial unpredictability" of centralized education policy. School choice can.

School choice proponents must stop preaching to the saved and risk real involvement in education politics — join the battle that in-the-trenches educators have been fighting for years, not just ride out of the hills and shoot the wounded.

Both groups must coalesce around the idea that parents and students are more important than process and politics. Schools must be accountable to parents and students, not to the state and the federal government.

Is this such a radical idea? The education establishment and school choice proponents might work together to create a diverse education system — a fitting legacy for this generation's children and grandchildren. Let's get it right.

Alliance For Student Achievement:

Partnership for Choice in Education:

Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce:

Read "The taboo of free market education . . . ."


In a fortunate juxtaposition, the same day my column making a case for the value of school choice the institutional editorial in the Pioneer Press urges reform of the “fundamentally flawed” school-choice system in St. Paul Public schools. Albeit unintentionally, the editorial supports a major contention of my column that without the completive burr of real school choice, centralized education is "glacial, unpredictable and easily sidetracked."

Read about it . . . .