Friday, April 01, 2005

COLUMN -- Accountability clause isn't fatal to Minnesota school voucher bill

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:00 AM |  

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Educational access grant legislation proposed by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, which would grant low-income families in St. Paul and Minneapolis tuition aid at accredited private schools, will receive its first hearing Thursday in the House Education Policy and Reform Committee.

I have been and continue to be an unapologetic supporter of this legislation. Nonetheless, it is not a perfect bill; it is a political compromise crafted to balance best results with least resistance. Compromise, especially of principle, however, often leads to unintended consequences and puts the perfect in opposition to the good. The interplay of those two forces might also put the Hann/Buesgens legislation (SF 736, HF 697) in jeopardy.

That shouldn't be allowed to happen.

The compromise in question is over the sensitive issue of how much accountability to the state will be imposed on private schools that accept voucher students. The following compromise clause appears in the Hann/Buesgens legislation:

"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."

In other words, students attending private schools using vouchers, and only voucher students, will be tested to federal and state requirements.

For the grass-roots activists at EdWatch and its legislative supporters, that compromise is too much.

Since its nascent days as the Maple River Education Coalition battling the Profile of Learning, EdWatch has been viewed by many as a right-wing fringe group fraught with conspiracy theories about sinister federal plots to take over education. Such shallow characterization makes it too easy to dismiss the organization's arguments, which deserve, on merit, to be considered.
EdWatch agrees that it is right to provide school choice to low-income families using education money that has already been allocated. But it views the compromise clause as too much of a sacrifice of principle to support the proposed legislation.

EdWatch believes that once it is established that the government has authority over school choice students, or private schools that enroll them, however innocuous that control might seem, genuine choice is compromised. Strengthening or adding further requirements becomes easier. Nonacademic requirements might be imposed — programs of a kind that many parents opt out of public schools to escape.

A second point made by EdWatch is that ultimately tests drive curriculum. EdWatch views the testing requirements in Hann/Buesgens as an unacceptable compromise of the independence of nonpublic schools. Many private school curriculums, it argues, are not geared to public school test requirements (which is why parents choose them).

If choice students consequently score poorly on those tests, will more state accountability measures be the consequence? To avoid more state interference, will private schools compromise their curriculums and "teach to the tests"? If choice students are required to submit to state assessments, EdWatch argues, then they are being measured to the expectations of the system they left rather than the system they chose.

If we were just debating the relative merits of education systems, I'd agree with the EdWatch stance; Hann/Buegens, already an extremely clean voucher bill, would be an even better bill if the offending clause were removed. EdWatch ought to continue to pound the principle of parental accountability.

However, the presence of the clause is not sufficient reason to oppose the bill.

Private school administrators understand the nature of the issue and are in the best position to protect their schools' integrity. Parents understand the ramifications of their choices and ultimately decide how much weight they will give to such tests. School choice supporters, myself included, must keep the accountability focus where it belongs — on parents, not the state.
However, school choice proponents and EdWatch supporters must not lower their position to that of school choice opponents and make this a debate about political self-interest and preservation of educational systems.

Ultimately, we're talking about real kids. The vital question is, "Is it fair to keep kids political pawns and kill a good voucher bill, out of desire for a perfect bill, at the expense of children trapped in underperforming schools?"

In good conscience, with full knowledge of the potential danger in the accountability clause, I cannot say it is so. Educational access grant legislation ought to be passed this session.