Remember the scandal at Brookmeade Elementary School? When parents were discovered to be using various ruses to fraudulently enroll their children in a not particularly attractive west-side school, many elements in the community expressed outrage.
The dudgeon got higher when it became apparent that the parents were being encouraged in their deceptions by Brookmeade school officials. No one ever really appreciated the silver lining to that story: Nashville had a public school good enough that parents were prepared to lie in order to send their children there.
The story is relevant now for much of the national debate about education reform, which generally focuses on two main ideas: vouchers and charter schools. Both concepts are premised on the idea that the people who have been running the schools for the last 200 years have become arrogant, out of touch, and bureaucratic, and that the best antidote is to loosen the grip of the education establishment on the nation’s schooling.
Voucher proposals assume that the discipline of free markets would drive weak schools out of business as parents, liberated from the education monopoly of the public school system, would opt out of the weaker parts of the public system for better-run private schools.
Charter schools are a sort of compromise between the bigger ambitions of the voucher concept and political reality. With charter schools, private individuals or organizations would receive funding to operate schools within the public system free of the strictures that have made public schools undesirable in the eyes of their critics. The charter concept silences some of the issues growing from the voucher proposal, such as the questions of adequate oversight and of vouchers for religiously affiliated schools.
There is no question that both approaches can yield the appearance of superior results when attempted on small scales. Pilot programs limited to relatively small pools of self-selected pupils are almost certain to yield better performance than would be expected from a similar sized random sample. In a limited trial, these programs are able to capitalize on the advantages that private schools have in committed parents, the ability to exclude undesirable or disruptive students, and few special needs pupils, while avoiding the corresponding disadvantages of the public schools.
What remains to be seen is whether either approach can yield better results on any basis other than student selectivity once the system becomes universal and the schools don’t have the luxury of choosing (or being chosen by) the best or most motivated students. To be morally defensible, either school-choice option has to be universal (except in its experimental or transitional phase). If otherwise limited, they become devices to separate someone’s idea of the deserving from the undeserving in schools of corresponding quality.
Much of the ideological hooting about the failure of public education focuses on supposedly hidebound practices and curriculum and the clout of the teachers’ union. This is part of a general disconnect between the debate on education policy, conducted in such precincts as the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, and the decisions of real families about where to send their children. Most parents don’t get caught up in the philosophical arguments about the relative merits of certified and uncertified teachers or the other agendas of the critics, like weakening the teachers’ union, which is seen as an interest group aligned with the Democratic Party. They just ask what is going to serve their own children best.
Ultimately, what concerns parents most is not who runs the public schools or who teaches in them, but who else goes there. Parents tend to want their children to go to school with other kids who will pull them forward rather than hold them back. This is the seduction choice proposals offer for parentsnot ideology, but the prospect that their children can go to a school where everyone is above average.
Given that all children come to the educational process standing on the shoulders of their forebears, it is worthwhile to note that urban public school systems suffer from a problem of adverse selection. The pupils there are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, be recent immigrants, or have special educational needs. They are also more diverse. Children in urban public schools are more likely to go to school with pupils who are not like them, in terms of culture, ethnicity, life horizons, and expectations.
It is these factors that make parents wary of urban public schools, not the technical quality of the pedagogy. The recent release of results from the state’s value-added tests showed once again that Davidson County schools were doing an excellent job of teaching, even if the overall scores of the kids lagged behind those of less challenged systems.
The problem of non-universal choice systems is that they offer the opportunity for more motivated or concerned parents to opt out of the broader system into a school without the burdens or responsibility of the public system. The result is to skim out of the public system just those people who are important to making the public system successful. It is not unreasonable for motivated parents to seek the best outcomes for their children; indeed, it is unreasonable to expect them to sacrifice their own children for the generalized principle of promoting equality or the broader welfare of society.
In North Carolina, for example, state law requires that charter schools bear some minimal resemblance to the diversity of their areas so as not to be a device to resegregate the schools. Yet, expansion of the charter schools program has been slowed because about one-third of the schools have enrollments that are over 85 percent black. On one level, this is an endorsement of the charter schools concept insofar as it suggests that they are not merely a device to let white parents get their kids out of integrated public schools, and that some black parents are as disappointed as some white parents about their public schools.
On the other hand, as a solution to an educational problem, it is a mere redistribution of inequality. Vouchers and choice plans make system abandonment an option for a larger number of parents, but they don’t get at the fundamental problem of raising everybody’s performance. Some of the best pupilsthose who are important to making the public schools workleave, while leaving the public schools with a bigger challenge to make those schools work.
To move beyond the school-choice approaches to something really promising, it might be helpful to engage in a small thought experimentan imaginary proposal that is useful for understanding the problem, although not practical to implement in the real world. Instead of offering parents a choice plan, we should offer a no-choice plan. Under such a plan, private schools would be outlawed and everyone would be required to attend his or her assigned public school with no waivers. (And since this is all imaginary, no one would be allowed to move to Brentwood.)
What would be the outcome of such a plan? The most affluent parents would probably insist on more funding for schools. Motivated parents with children assigned to substandard schools would demand the schools improve and would contribute their time and energy to make certain that it happened. The overall level of performance would improve.
Of course, such a totalitarian solution is not possible. But it is useful in helping put a finger on the way we have misdirected public schools. For, while we have saddled school administrations with all kinds of conflicting responsibilities and fashionable ideologies, we have not demanded that they make it their central purpose to reclaim their lost universality. We have not held the school leadership responsible for reclaiming dwindling market share.
Indeed, one tremendous disincentive to reclaiming market share is the school budget process, which actually encourages administrators to shrink the system.
To simplify somewhat, schools in Davidson County receive funding from three basic sources: state government, property tax revenue, and sales tax revenue.
The state government contribution covers about 60 percent of the cost of classroom instruction. The state pays the district an amount per pupil, and the state payment increases or decreases as the enrollment changes.
The other two main pots of money are different. By state law, about half of the local option sales tax must be allocated to schools. In addition, schools receive a set portion of the property tax rate every year. Since 1992, when the charter was amended to establish distinct general government and education property tax rates, the school department has been basically independent of the Metro budget process, although the school board must rely on the council to approve tax rate increases if they are needed for schools.
The common point about the two sources of local revenue for schools is that they are driven by the financial health of the local economy, not the needs of the school department. Thus, even if the enrollment of the schools grows, the amount of local funding pouring into the schools remains the same. Adding additional students just means that the finite amount of local funding must be shared by more students. That translates into less money available for special needs, less money available for program enhancements, and less money available for teacher and administrator pay raises.
The need to refocus schools on growing market share is worth thinking about if Nashville wants to make good on a third round of school reform. In the last two years, two major reform packages have been put in place: The content-driven Core Curriculum for elementary schools was adopted in 1997, while a revised desegregation plan with substantial new school construction was approved last year.
Both represented major financial commitments, but in all the debate, I never heard anyone argue that it would bring children back to the public schools. At best, it was said, it would slow the seepage. There has always been a kind of defeated acceptance of dwindling public school participation as inevitable in our world.
Perhaps the next round of reform should focus on demanding that the school leadership do what is necessary to get pupils back. The way to demand that outcome is to reward it: Salaries and bonuses for school leaders should be determined by the degree to which they succeed in winning back enrollment. And they should be given authority to do what they need to do to succeed.
The idea is to get the schools to stop looking on parents as annoyances and start looking at them as customers who must be satisfied.
Over the last 40 years, much attention has been focused on undoing many of the lingering inequities of the school system and of society at large. As a consequence, school systems have had to focus on meeting ideological goals at the expense of satisfying their core constituency.
Thus, the school system went through long agonies debating whether parents could raise money for major improvements at Julia Green Elementary School in Green Hills before agreeingprovided it didn’t increase enrollment at the school. While there were some legitimate reasons for that last concern related to the final acts of the busing melodrama, the point is that failing to approve the fund-raising proposal would have only sent another wave of pro-education parents looking for private schools.
The school system should be leveraging its strong assets to bring back more participants to the system, because ultimately the system’s success depends on having more motivated parents and academically oriented studentsboth because they help raise pupil performance, and because they raise public support for greater educational expenditure.
That means more customer-oriented school assignments, expansion of the popular schools at the expense of less popular ones, surveying private school parents to find out what it would take to bring them back to the public system, better food in the cafeterias, and schedules that are set to meet parents’ needs rather than those of teachers and administrators.
In short, schools ought to be run with the same customer focus as Wal-Mart. If they have not been to date, part of the reason is that school policy has not made customer focus a central theme when faced with competing demands from internal constituencies and other political goals.
But what is past is past. The point is that the next superintendent ought to expect to be treated the way a corporate executive would be treated if he continued to lose market share in a business in which he was giving away his product and all his competitors were charging for theirs.
The principal at Brookmeade school was ultimately reprimanded and reassigned, and there were issues in the Brookmeade case that make it a matter more complex than portrayed here, but in another way it represents a model for the way the school system ought to be thinking. The school system should be following the Brookmeade model of doing whatever it takeswhatever it takesto get parents to want to send their children there.
The show is coming back. End of story.
The old Nashville Banner column was "Why do the heathen rage" or something like that.
Google the George Strait 60 for 60 campaign. It worked.
Reading comprehension hasn't informed yours, Fool.
It makes me throw up a little in my mouth to see arrogant, prideful know-it-all…