Friday, November 26, 2004

What “moral imperative” for school choice?

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:50 PM |  

In addition to some nice “attaboys” for taking on the education establishment in my Pioneer Press column “The moral imperative for school choice,” I received several responses from public school teachers taking exception to the column.

What is interesting about the teachers' responses is that they ignore the premise of my column (as expressed by Sol Stern) that “if you have a school that is destroying children, then it's morally incumbent on society to provide the opportunity [e.g. vouchers or tax credits] for those children to get out and find a school that works for them.” Instead, the responses attacked my column by claiming my comparison of Catholic school success to public school failure is “too simplistic” -- private schools don’t have the same demographics as public schools; they don’t have to take “problem students”; they don’t offer all the services of public schools, and the like, and that’s why they are so much less expensive.

Jay Greene and Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute have published a study entitled "The Teachability Index: Can Disadvantaged Students Learn." I quibble with some of their statistical results, but the methodology and conclusion of the study are sound. The study shows that some schools achieve better results with quantifiably more difficult students for less money than some other schools achieve with less difficult students at higher cost. In other words, schools/teachers do make a difference. School choice enables parents to seek out those schools. Why is that wrong?

Education Working Paper 6
The Teachability Index:
Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?

Jay P. Greene &
Greg Forster,
The Manhattan Institute

Other responses shifted the blame for public school failures to parents while at the same time blaming parents for the inevitable failure of school choice -- and in no uncertain terms --

Parents who are homeless, addicted to crack, or who are themselves illiterate or non-English speakers cannot be expected to attend private school open houses, peruse Minnesota Monthly for the latest private school rankings, or assemble Excel spreadsheets of their childrens' [sic] educational options.
In other words, because SOME parents won’t take advantage of school choice, ALL students must be kept in a failing system. The responses also attacked vouchers as discriminating against the poor and conjectured with no proof or logic that a voucher system will destroy public education.

I responded in part to one teacher --

The issue is not a who does better, public or private schools. The issue is not about systems. The issue is children. School choice is a moral issue.

Howard Fuller, among others, calls school choice the last great civil rights battle. You talk about vouchers destroying the "public schools." Mr. Fuller would argue that you've lost site of what "public" education really is. He writes --

"[People] do not make a distinction between public education, which is a concept, and the system that delivers public education. The system that delivers public education, as we’ve structured it in America, is not public education. Public education is a concept that it is in our interest to educate all our children. What makes public education public is that it serves the public’s interests. . . . . What we therefore need to do is to commit to a purpose, not institutional arrangements."
It is unfortunate that the education establishment refuses to acknowledge that. Education is every citizen’s interest, if for no other reason than your tax dollars -- a helluva lot of them -- go to support it. Howard Fuller will be speaking St. Paul Dec.7. I urge any who can -- pro- or anti-school choice --to consider attending.

The sad fact is that not one critical response I received addressed the specific question -- Is it ethical for “public” education to prevent children and parents from having the opportunity to choose a school that meets their needs regardless of their economic situation? The question was not even recognized.