by Pat Kossan - Aug. 30, 2009
The Arizona Republic
The current public-school debate can be roughly divided into two camps. On one side: those who say investing in America's public-school system will improve student achievement. On the other side: those who have lost faith in the public-school system and believe investing in competition and privately operated schools is the best way to improve student achievement.
The Arizona Republic asked one of the best-known proponents from each side of the argument to make their case.
Vouchers, elite programs equalize the playing field
he real problem is that public education is too big and too cumbersome to move quickly enough to help America's students stay ahead of other countries. Competition from private enterprise will create the revolution needed to fix public education, proponents say.
Glass' concerns are legitimate, said Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor and author.
"Many people will suggest that there was some golden era when things were good and that we've fallen from that golden era," Greene said. "Evidence suggests that things are not worse than they have been in the past in terms of educational outcomes."
The problem is that education in America is not significantly better despite an increase in money. Test scores are not rising fast enough and graduation rates are unchanged since the 1970s.
Offering tax credits and state money to help parents pay private-school tuition, allowing private companies to operate public schools and building elite science or gifted programs within school districts offer the least wealthy students access to the best education, Greene said.
"Whenever you expand the options, and they're free to people and you don't have to pay a private-school tuition, you're going to make it easier for people of more modest means to gain access to that desired option," Greene said.
Greene likens voucher programs, those that give parents state money to pay for private schools, to the food-stamp program. Instead of giving families coupons for food, the government would give families coupons for education. Then, parents would go to the marketplace and buy whatever they wanted for their children.
"It's not targeted exclusively to poor people," Greene said. "But if we made vouchers available to everyone, poor people could participate just like rich people."
Without school choice, the quality of the neighborhood public school is often related to the wealth of the neighborhood, offering a choice only to families who can afford to move to the best school districts. School choice detaches the quality of education your children receive from the wealth of your family's neighborhood.
"Which gives you a chance, not a guarantee, to a more desirable school, even if you live in an area where they schools are less good," Greene said. "So it improves equity."
Privatization will help just a few, hurt overall system
True school reform is based on well-researched and well-organized changes in the classroom that would help all students in all public schools perform better. Instead, America has pursued school-choice reforms that help a few students and ultimately degrade the public system as a whole, those on one side of the argument say.
School choice is a political movement disguised as school reform that gives high-frequency, middle-class voters access to free private-school quality education, said Gene Glass, an Arizona State University education professor. Glass said the choice movement is spurred by exaggerating the problems within America's schools.
If not stopped, this privatization of the public system will leave behind a generation of Americans to intellectually wither in underfunded neighborhood schools, short on supplies and qualified teachers, said Glass, who examines this debate in his latest book "Fertilizers, Pills and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America."
School choice is cheaper for states than raising the entire public-school system to achieve higher standards, and that appeases a growing number of voters, Glass said. Among them are older voters who are retiring deeply in debt and are less willing to pay the taxes needed to fund true reform, and families who want private-style education but can't afford to pay tuition. School choice allows politicians to promise lower taxes while delivering quality education to the important few. In the competition to keep the best and brightest students in public schools, districts are creating their own elite "boutique" schools for gifted and accelerated students, where students get better technology and teaching and more attention than typical neighborhood schools.
Racism against Latino children helps to fuel the school-choice reform movement, Glass said. Some view Latino families, particularly those who speak Spanish
at home, as a burden on the public-school system, slowing learning in classrooms and absorbing too much public money, Glass said.
"Hispanic demographics and the economics of an aging population are setting the agenda for education policy in the U.S., but particularly in Arizona where both influences exist at full force," Glass said. "It is no surprise that such a set of circumstances has spawned the hallmarks of Arizona education policy."