Accountability, Privatization of Public Education, Standardized Testing, Teacher Shortage

When it Comes to “School Choice,” Consider the Whole

Trump’s latest appointment is the Secretary of Education. She is pro charter school. Making my career in education I think I’d like to weigh in on this and give my opinion. Having been subject to the deluge of opinions and memes over the past two weeks, why not throw one out there myself?

This post is my own opinion, not on work time, and not to be confused as anything but my opinion as a voting aged, tax-paying American.

I am opposed to charter schools and voucher systems. Not shocking, as I work in education. I’d like to outline why I am against them, and what I think can be done instead. Perhaps it will help you form an opinion on the matter and since on facebook we all love to tell each other what to think, might as well weigh in on something that I know a little something about.

Hidden behind the innocuous name “school choice” are charter schools. Here is a basic fact most don’t know about Kentucky. In most districts you already have a great deal of choice. Outside of a variety of public schools, you have private schools. Before you say that’s a rich man’s game – it’s not. There is a wealth of students in private school backed by charitable ventures. The term “school choice” is used because it sounds positive, and it doesn’t at all point to the inequities that charters can bring to the table. I am 100% in favor of private schools – you want to put one together and fund it, by all means. But if you want to fund it with the collective pot of money known as taxes, I am not for it.

In brief I am opposed to charters because of the following reasons:

  1. Charter schools are an easy buzzword answer to a complex problem. Complex problems never have easy answers. In this case we are playing with the futures of kids. I won’t stand idly by with that much on the line to be decided by a simple answer.
  2. In Kentucky our funding model for schools is not optimal. It relies on average daily attendance rather than enrollment for basic funding and as the years go on the state shifts the burdens of unfunded mandates back to the districts. This creates inequity for the smaller and poorer districts. If the system is not right to begin with, the answer is to fix the system rather than look to an alternative.
  3. Charters can choose who they educate with my tax dollars. They can say no to a poor kid, a special ed kid or whomever they wish. If I am going to pay for the system, then the system has to take all kids. I think that’s an equitable use of my tax dollars. I am not interested in funding a selective school with my taxes. If I want to fund a private school, that is a choice I can choose to make. If instead I am going to toss money into the collective pot for all – then it needs to serve all.
  4. They are not subject to the same mind-numbing bureaucratic red tape public schools are. This red tape is killing our schools. I can go on for days on the amount of inane busywork the state and federal government foist upon teachers and administrators.
  5. Because the current endeavors surrounding “for profit” education should be an indication of the quality of service one could expect.nochoice

The current “for profit” endeavors mostly center around testing. Right now public education is making a lot of folk’s money. It’s not the teachers, or even the administrators (an easy punching bag) and it sure isn’t the kids. Corporations hiding behind “accountability measures” and “intervention programs” are getting rich off the backs of students and schools. Look up how much Kentucky spends on KPREP, ACT, Industry cert exams, and the litany of accountability measures we are all subject to. Look at what your local school or district is forced to pay for these things and ask yourself is that a wise expenditure of funds? I am not opposed to testing, in fact in many instances it serves as an excellent diagnosis tool both in terms of the program provided, and the individual student’s competency level in a given area. However, we are awash in testing to the point where it has become too much. Again, ask your local school or district how much of a student’s year is spent in assessment. Then ask the state ‘why’, and for what purpose is this being done? Then ask how much. Divide that number by the cost of an average educator and ask if that money would have been better served elsewhere. Rather than more money flow into the coffers of Pearson, ACT, or another edu-corp it would make more sense to put that money on the front line in buildings and districts, working with students.

This system of accountability and the dollar signs attached to testing is one of my chief complaints of public education. Trust me, I love public education. It is what I’ve dedicated my adult working life to, and I believe in it, value it, and am champion for it. I will also be the first to say we have gone off the rails as a state and moreso a nation on the altar of testing. It’s too much and it’s doing a disservice to students, teachers, and administrators. I am not against accountability, but we’ve gone to far. I don’t want my kids spending 5-10 days a year doing standardized tests, and I don’t like the fact that we do it to students right now. I could say no (and then lose my job rather quickly) or use my not at work voice and advocate to anyone who will listen to be voices to change that aspect of our system.

My fear is that introducing private enterprise into school business will be much the same as the edu-corps and their introduction into the money making business of accountability. Right now they’re making wheelbarrows of money off testing. I can’t imagine the harm that will come when they get into the classroom. I’m sure it will look but under the hood will be hidden some darker things. If you want an example go google some charters. Look at their results, and then at their admission policies. If they are killing it in the for profit world and they are educating ANY kid (ESL, ELL, Special ed, impoverished) that walks off the street- more power to them and they need to share their special recipe. Until I see replicable models of charters that work with the same students as the public school has to take, I won’t believe they’re anything more than a private school with selective enrollment being paid for by my tax dollars. I’m not OK with my taxes paying for some kids to be successful, and some not by design. If I’m going to pay for it I’d like them to have an even shot.

The argument for a charter and “school choice” is an inviting argument. It’s built on the narrative that public schools are failing. In some places they are. Either through poor funding, poor management, or other issues, they are failing. However, in many places they are chugging along just fine. When was the last time you read a story “local public school is doing just fine” or instead saw “Detroit schools are falling apart and are full of mold.” Ask yourself which one is more provocative to report on? Rather than critically look at the system we rely on short snippets and sensational stories to guide our opinions. Again, these are the lives of students and their futures. I’d urge you to take a broader view of the system. If all you see is at the local level and you pay your taxes and feel anger that the local school isn’t doing well. I get it. So you hear the talk of school choice and it sounds good. I’ll ask you to consider instead improving the system in place. It’s not broken, and in many cases it’s great. It does however have numerous problems, some of its own design, and some out of its hands. In the hands of the voters are many of these decisions.

I would urge you to become informed about some of the systemic issues facing public education and be an advocate to change them, and in some cases outright fix them before you look at charter schools as a solution.

The second argument for charter schools is “I’d rather be able to direct my tax money how I see fit”. I can understand that sentiment, but I believe an educated society is a benefit to all. I would instead say you are paying to have kids educated in the democratic process, become thinkers, doers, and contributors to society. While it might be ok to look at a voucher in your pocket as a better means to self-govern what happens with your kids I’d ask you to consider the whole first. I believe a well-funded public system is a benefit to all. If you do not, you have options- private school and homeschool. Both can require sacrifices to achieve. I’m willing to say the benefit to the whole of the community (paying taxes to fund public schools) than the benefit to the individual (a voucher in your pocket). You may not agree with that, and you may not agree with the two alternatives I listed and that’s OK. You probably wouldn’t agree when I further say I think we need *more* tax money being funneled to education. If I had my way we’d spend far more on education than we would many other things. The beauty is we can both be advocates for what we believe in, and I will hope that those who feel as I do outvote those who feel as you do.

Outside of the basic taxes for the individual versus taxes for the collective good if you want some suggestions to improve the system rather than look at charters as the silver bullet I’d be happy to give some.

Here’s my take based on my experience. It’s only my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth:

  1. Equitably fund schools based on need. Divest yourself of the idea that all schools in a district should be funded equally. It doesn’t work. We know this. We see it every year. Instead if you want a more equitable outcome- put more money to places that have more need. Provide the school with the educational resources to educate the clientele that walks in the door. Advocate for this. Points 2-9 really are 50% of the battle, and this one is the other 50%. If you need proof look at a couple of things. Pick our state or any state and look at the bottom 5 schools by the available metrics. If they were the same bottom 5- 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago AND they were funded relatively on the same model over the years- then the problem lies with the system of funding, not with the school.
  2. Cease summative end of the year testing in favor of interim, shorter assessment to look at student growth. Move away from the accountability altar and instead spend the massive amounts of money spent in its name on improving the direct education of students, rather than creating data for praise/ blame and to categorize schools. If you are a non-educator and can explain to me our current accountability system correctly- I’ll give you a dollar. If you are an educator I’d almost challenge you to the same. We have gone in 15-20 years from relatively no accountability to dying at the altar of testing. There MUST be a happy medium that can satisfy the politicians and public who want results, and the educators and students who have to spend instructional time on this endeavor.
  3. Advocate to the state department to stop any mandated change/ law/ procedure unless it comes with state funding to make it happen. Districts are being crippled by state mandates that they must dip into their local tax based coffers to pay for.
  4. Provide the resources for real behavior intervention. That means different places (re: schools) for chronic offenders so that they can get real help AND resources and support inside of existing schools as a frontline. A good alternative school works. There are several in the state- Oldham, Bullitt, many others. It can’t be set up like a prison, it must have the resources in place to teach replacement behaviors. Also in the same vein have a court system that isn’t overburdened with cases. Our judges don’t have enough time to see the issues that come in front of them. The answer isn’t limiting reporting the issues, the answer is putting more people to the problem in terms of adjudication, and support to change behaviors. I am 100% in favor of holding a kid accountable, but we can’t take the pithy approach of “whoop em, it worked for me”. No, it probably didn’t. you probably had more support in place. Many of our students don’t have the supports in place to succeed and if we force them (which we do with compulsory attendance laws) then the burden comes to society to put the structures in place to support them.
  5. Drop the agrarian calendar. We aren’t farmers anymore. The summer break we have doesn’t serve kids in terms of retention of content. Summer slide is real. Instead to give students needed breaks, go to a calendar that is year round with more one to two week breaks interspersed in it.
  6. Take a hard look at IDEA and current special education laws and have an honest look at whether or not they are truly helping students with diverse learning needs, or creating even bigger gaps. Do not take this as anti-special education- instead hear me when I say that this area requires much work.
  7. Take a hard look at any union or employment contract that doesn’t give administrators a non-cumbersome way to part ways with poor teachers. On the other side of the coin, create a structure that does the same to remove poor administrators before their damage is measured in years. Don’t take this point as being anti-union, it’s not. Take it as being pro-effective teaching. Truth is some teachers and some principals aren’t suited for their roles. When it is apparent it should not take years to remove them from their positions. I am pro union. I think it protects workers from mismanagement and exploitation. I do think though we have in many cases swung the pendulum too far away from that and have protected folks who have no business working with students. Like accountability there has to be a happy medium.
  8. As a society figure out a way to hold parents to more accountability for involvement in schools. I don’t know what this would be, but we all know we need it, and it starts at home. Solve that and you’ll get a nobel prize I think.
  9. Lastly: Stop demonizing the outliers. By that I mean the sensational article about the random kid who does something bad. Or the teacher that makes a bad choice. Or the administrator who does something unpopular. Realize that the outliers aren’t the norm. Celebrate the good things that are going on every day in schools.

This post was written by a principal within JCPS who has asked to remain anonymous.

1 thought on “When it Comes to “School Choice,” Consider the Whole”

  1. This is such a pragmatic explanation with sound solutions to our deeply rooted issues in JCPS. If only we had leaders such as you in a position to make these changes for all teachers but, more importantly, for all JCPS students and their parents. I would hazard a guess that your teachers and students are very lucky to have you. My hope is that you will mentor teachers to make the changes you mention to truly make the world a better place and create a ripple effect that will last for many, many years. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Leave a Reply