School Choice Choice

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Yesterday the Senate Education Committee approved the Opportunity Scholarship Act, setting the stage for yet another iteration of the same philosophical dispute incited by any school choice program. Does the State have responsibility for upholding a traditional public school system that serves all children, regardless of parent advocacy, special needs, religious affiliation, etc., even when part of that system is failing? Or is the State responsible for providing potentially better choices, even if not all under-served kids have access to those alternatives?

See here for coverage by The Record, PolitickerNJ, Courier-Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and NJ Spotlight. In a nutshell, the bill provides up to an annual $8,000 per elementary student and $11,000 per secondary student in scholarships funded by corporations (encouraged by state tax credits) in 13 low-performing districts. (Asbury Park, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, and Trenton.) Students must meet income thresholds. It’s a five-year program that would offer 3,900 vouchers the first year and up to 40,000 by the fifth year.

Predictably, reactions fall into one of those two camps. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian says that the bill, S 1872, is an “educational travesty,” adding that giving “hundreds of millions of tax dollars to students already attending private schools” won’t “help children in public schools.” Senator Barbara Buono, who voted against the bill, said at a town meeting in Edison, adds her voice to those who advocate the good of the entire system over the good of current students: “it would hurt the public schools that are left behind,” which is “an abandonment of public education.”

“I believe it is not about choice, it is not about reform, it is about turning our backs to public education,” Buono said.

Taking the side of the individual student, Senator Ray Lesniak, a primary sponsor of the bill, said,

You don’t fail to save one (student) because you can’t save them all.

Part of this moral dilemma rests on NJ’s reputation as a system that generally performs well, at least for students in relatively well-to-do districts. So some of the rhetoric probes whether NJ’s significant cadre of great schools compensates for the presence of a smaller cohort of failing ones. Again, Senator Buono:

“We have 2,485 schools and the governor talks about 200 failing schools,” Buono said. “I don’t think that’s such a bad percentage.”

Taking the opposite view, here’s Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance, as quoted in The Record:

We have two education systems. One of them is excellent and we are proud of it. … But we have also some of the worst schools in the nation.

Proponents of the greater good are offended by the prospect of redirected student aid, loss of higher-achieving kids with empowered parents, and the lack of accountability to the State on the part of religious and private schools. Proponents of vouchers (or, in a different context, public charters) point to the opportunity to immediately improve the education of poor children trapped in chronically failing schools, arguing that we’re better off saving who we can. (It’s unclear how the money works out for taxpayers. Parochial schools spend far less per pupil and public districts would get to pocket the difference, though the tax credits carry their own burden. Depends upon whom you ask.)

A bit of perspective. A recent study from the Fordham Foundation, “Are Bad Schools Immortal: The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors,” finds that in both the traditional public and charter sector we do a terrible job of either improving or eliminating bad schools. The authors followed 2,025 low-performing schools and report that

Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charter schools remained in operation, and remained low-performing, five years later, compared with 80 percent of district schools.

Few low-performing schools in either sector—barely 1 percent—managed to dramatically improve their academic performance over this five-year period, and fewer than 10 percent made even moderate gains. Charter schools were not statistically more or less likely to turn around than their district peers.

If the Fordham study is correct, families in Camden and Plainfield and Trenton would be unwise to count on the state coming up with better schools. Minus a couple of bright spots, we haven’t managed to improve those districts for decades despite wads of extra cash. So do we give some children a ticket out right now and leave the rest behind, with a wispy hope that competition provides the jolt needed for meaningful improvement among failing schools? Or do we sentence all children in those 13 districts to continued attendance in bad schools because it’s unfair to save some without saving all?

Your philosophical conundrum for the weekend.

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1 Comment

  • kallikak, January 22, 2011 @ 5:33 pm Reply

    Philosophical dispute?

    Let's review the NJ Constitution, Article VIII, Section 4:

    1. The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.

    Someone should remind Sen. Lesniak that this isn't about “saving” some kids to the detriment of others: the state has a clear obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for ALL.

    Proponents of choice characterize some schools as “failing”—as opposed to placing responsibility on students, parents or some other entity. Under our Constitution, the state is obligated to deliver “thorough and efficient” school systems, so “failing” schools or systems must be fixed, not abandoned piecemeal (the practical impact of the voucher bill).

    However much the Governor and Legislature may be frustrated by the substandard educational outcomes in some districts, they cannot simply throw up their hands and say, in effect, “let the private sector fix this one.”

    Our Constitution demands much more.

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