Thursday, March 6, 2008

Save Public Education

If I try to write about the election today it's only going to make me sad or angry for the rest of the day. So with that in mind, it's back to the old standby: education reform.

Let me start by saying that even with it's problems (and they are numerous) I am still a 100% believer in free public education. In addition to the obvious economic advantages of having a well educated society, public schools act as an Americanizing, socializing influence that create a common culture in a way that little else can. Free public education is one of the great democratizing forces in our country today.

That being said, reforms are obviously necessary. One reform track that's gaining more and more steam in places as far flung as Arizona and New York City is the charter school movement. A charter school is a tax payer funded school run by a private and/or non-profit group rather than the government. The idea is that this will both create more market incentives for a failing system and that different charter schools will be more free to experiment and try new approaches to teaching than would be allowed in the regular, government-operated public schools.

It all sounds very attractive in theory. However, I view the charters with great suspicion. First, it strikes me as a plan to essentially have tax payers pay for private schools that have a fair amount of say over who gets in to the school and who gets to stay in the school. Second, because of those differences in enrollment, it's nearly impossible to have a true apples to apples comparison between charter and public schools. Even charters that select based on a lottery of all parents who submit an application are still drawing from a group of parents that care enough to fill out an application. Such cannot necessarily be said for a public school. If we assume that parental involvement influences student learning (and I think we can) then the "random" kids at the charter school are going to have a leg up. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

With all that in mind, I present for your viewing pleasure this video from Reason TV. If you can get past the fact that Drew Carey is the host and that the representative from the teacher's union looks a lot like Tom Hanks' character from the Ladykillers then it tells a pretty interesting story about a failing public school in L.A. trying to become a charter school.

The video hinges on the idea that powerful interest groups (the Department of Education, teacher's union, etc.) are what's holding back education in America and that if we could get past those groups the schools would be better. In this case, the way to move on is to create charter schools.

Frankly, I'm not sure if this is really the answer. As I said earlier, I'm already suspicious of charter schools as inroads to doing away with public education in favor of a privatized system. I also think it's naive to think that there will be no institutional hurdles to educating children in a private/charter school model. Also, it overlooks the obvious point that public schools can be reformed.

Assuming that the charter school representative can be taken at his word that the charter school will take everyone and keep everyone (which I would want to see to believe), then he's basically operating a public school in a different way. So why not operate a public school that way? Yes, it would take a school board willing to institute reforms and a teacher's union who remembers that unionism is a means, not an end in itself. But it can be done. And I think we should give it a try before we start dismantling the system.

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