Tuesday, March 01, 2005

DEBATE: Is the accountability clause in Hann/Buesgens a show-stopper?

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:41 PM |  

As I posted previously, there is some intelligent dissent on vouchers that ought to be confronted and considered by those of us who see the Hann/Buesgens education access grant legislation as a good first step in achieving the freedom of educational choice for all Minnesota families. I addressed the libertarian objections to vouchers here.

Today I had the opportunity to talk with Julie Quist of EdWatch, the post-August 2003 Maple River Education Coalition (MREdCo). This is a group for which I have a lot of respect, not just because I find myself in agreement with them 95 percent of the time, but because when I do disagree, it’s possible to have a discussion on principle.

That was the case in my conversation with Julie today.

The point of contention is the section of the Hann/Buesgens bill that reads --
Students receiving access grants will be required to participate in the statewide testing and reporting accountability system under section 102B.30 that public schools are subject to under federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Here’s what I mean about principle -- despite the fact that EdWatch holds the principle that providing low-income students with a choice of attending non-public schools with the education money already allocated for them is a good thing, they are also firmly opposed to attaching strings to grants that would open the door for state mandates on non-public schools.

As Julie points out, the accountability card is one voucher opponents are quick to play to scare non-public schools away from voucher programs. Consider this remark from Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubach --.
“If we’re going to consider public funding for private and religious schools, then we must also ensure a level playing field for all schools – the same entrance requirements, the same standards and the same accountability measures.”
Strings attached to the Hann/Buesgens bill are what triggers EdWatch’s opposition to the bill. Its position is well-supported.

Once the principle is established that the government has authority over school choice students, or private schools that enroll them, genuine choice is compromised. Strengthening or adding future requirements becomes a smaller step. Those might include non-academic requirements such as school-to-work, diversity training and the federal National Assessment for Educational Progress test -- the kind of things many parents opt out of public schools to escape.

A second point made by EdWatch is that ultimately tests drive curriculum. Even some on the left have cited how the high stakes nature of the No Child Left Behind Act drives schools to focus on teaching to the test rather than teaching for knowledge. EdWatch views the testing requirements in Hann/Buesgens as a compromise of the independence of non-public schools. Many private school curriculums are not geared to public school test requirements (which is why parents choose them). If choice students consequently score poorly on those tests, what will be the consequences? More state accountability measures?

Bottomline for EdWatch is that school “choice” must be real choice. “Accountability” must be real accountability to parents, not the state. If choice students are required to submit to state-assessments, then they are being measured according to the expectations of the system they have left rather than the curriculum of their choice.

[A brief aside, it really is refreshing when people argue from principle, instead of political position. EdWatch is taking exception to a bill sponsored by people they usually support and for a cause they generally support. All for the sake of principle. Would that our legislators had the same character.]

Like the libertarian position of vouchers as a big government redistribution program, EdWatch makes a convincing case, one which I agree with -- in principle. Julie makes the point that choice is coming, the momentum is there, and those who favor choice shouldn’t capitulate on points that give the education establishment inroads to regulate private schools.

If we were just dealing with education systems, I’d strongly agree. But we’re talking about real children. Is it fair to make kids pawns in a political game and delay implementation of a voucher program a year or two at the expense of a year or two more in some child’s educational career in an under performing school?

As posted previously: When it comes to school choice, I favor former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools and school choice advocate Howard Fuller’s “Harriet Tubman” metaphor. Harriett Tubman worked hard for the abolition of slavery, but while that was her “day job,” by night she ran a station on the underground railroad and smuggled fugitive slaves to free states in the North. Fuller’s “Harriet Tubman” metaphor --
“I’d like all kids to have school choice, but until that day arrives, I’m going to rescue as many kids as I can, one child at a time.”
The accountability issue can’t be a show stopper.

That being said, in my summary of the Hann/Kelley MPR debate, I noted that Sen. Hann is not comfortable on the tightrope between advocating for vouchers and criticizing the public school system. He, like most supporters of school choice, is reluctant to say that the reason vouchers are an issue is that the public schools just are not working. Good public schools are not the rule, especially for low-income children of color. There’s “accepted political wisdom” at work here that says compromise is necessary to get things done.

Perhaps -- but perhaps more important is fighting for what is right rather than what is expedient. Perhaps telling the truth is more effective than being tactful. There’s a long way to go before the educational access grant bill reaches a floor vote. Opponents will use that time to water the bill down and kill it. That time can also be used to improved it. Removing the testing requirement is a step in that direction.