Monday, January 24, 2011

school choice, school accountability, and the public purposes of education

I work at a private university, I am board chair at a charter school, and my kids go to public school.  Why? Because I believe that multiple types of schools make it more likely that students will learn.  But I also believe that multiple types of schools are most likely to move our communities towards the public goals that most people express for education--civic engagement, global competitiveness, personal responsibility, etc.

In the educational system that exists in most places in the US, the state controls most of the educational infrastructure, but the ends of education are generally private in that they focus on preparation for careers and on allowing students to study what they wish.  There is a required curriculum to be sure, but no common outcomes (besides, at the K-12 level, passing a couple of standardized tests).

So I'd like to make a common sense proposal.  In a time of limited resources, limited capacity, and huge need for more, improved education, let's stop fighting about which type of school is best.  And let's end the false debate between school choice and public accountability.  The needs are too large for a doctrinaire "solution" to education's problems.

Instead, let's do two things: 

(1) Make student access to education easier by radically expanding where students and their families can spend education dollars.  Or, in other words, states ought to quickly and massively expand voucher programs, both at the K-12 and higher ed levels.

(2) In order for those funds to be spent at a school, let's require that the school prove that its students are moving towards the public goals of education--that they understand the history of the nation and the community, that they serve, that they create, and that they know how to do math and science.  No evidence, then no access to public funds.

What are the likely results of such moves?  In the short term, some chaos as students and resources shift within the system.  In the longer term, three things; first, more students in the schools where they want to be, second, more variety in school type, and third, though the state would own less of the education infrastructure, greater attainment of the educational goals that are in the state's best interest.

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