The Transylvania Times -

The Dark Side Of Increasing School Choice


January 9, 2017

What could be wrong with increasing the options available to families for their children’s education? That is an important question since the North Carolina General Assembly’s passage of two voucher programs now in their second year of implementation. In addition, both President Trump and his designee as Secretary of Education, Ms. Betsy DeVos, have advocated expanded school choice as a preferred strategy to improve educational performance.

Let us look at some basic data. Of the almost 1,800,000 children in grades kindergarten through grade 12 in North Carolina, about 23 percent (or almost 1 in every 4) are currently attending schools other than those operated by traditional county/city school systems and governed by elected boards of education. The breakdown of those 23 percent is as follows: home schooled, 12 percent, or 186,000; private schools without any state support, 6 percent, or 115,000; public charter schools, 5 percent, or 82,000; voucher grants (Opportunity Scholarship and Special Education Scholarship grants combined) less than 1 percent, or 6,000.

Clearly, North Carolina families are not lacking options, but the problem is that the resources to benefit from these options, including the home school opportunity, are not equally distributed across our 100 counties. Poverty communities are at a great disadvantage.

The trouble with school options is the same as is the case with other school reform alternatives: they fail to face head-on the fact set forth by James Coleman and his associates in the 1966 publication of the U.S. Office of Education, Equality of Educational Opportunity:” the effectiveness of schools is not a function of funding, but, no matter the funding, schools serving poverty populations tend to be at the bottom on measures of effectiveness. Fifty years later and the situation is the same: we still prefer to tinker with irrelevancies rather than deal with the root issues.

There is no question that the existing options, often in spite of good intentions, have failed to make an impact on the obvious and persistent problem of creating effective schools to serve poverty populations. Data show that the public charter school movement is serving student populations both “whiter” and more economically comfortable than the typical traditional public school. The same holds true for home schooling though perhaps for somewhat different reasons. Even the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program with its $4,200 annual maximum grant will have little impact on this issue. The average N.C. private school tuition and fees of over $7,000 leaves the difference to be raised by the family or waived by the private school. Since the majority of N.C. private schools have a religious denomination affiliation, a waiver of the difference may happen.

This “low income” voucher program sets an annual maximum income for a family of four at $59,790; median family income here in Transylvania is just over $47,000. “Low income” obviously is a broader concept than poverty level. I wonder how many truly “poverty” families will participate.

In fairness, I think that there are three features of the voucher programs that are positive: first, each child in the Opportunity Scholarship program saves the state a few thousand dollars and may even attract a few outstanding poverty population students into a more challenging learning climate; second, the Special Education Scholarship Grants with the higher possible annual award of $8,000 may open some doors with resources that the traditional school special education program does not provide; third, these two programs may have a public relations value to stir the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to explore avenues that address the poverty issue.

At the same time, there are other consequences, whether intended or not. Each person who enrolls in a private school, with or without a voucher, and every child/youth being home schooled or attending a public charter school deprives the traditional county/city system of financial support that could provide funds to develop programs directed at the root issue of poverty.

I am not a prophet of doom. There is no panacea, but we do know several ways that will open new worlds for those who live in hopelessness. Most important are teachers, not only competent, but also compassionate, resilient, creative, moderate risk-takers and adept listeners; teachers who work in collaborative teams of four, responsible jointly for about 100 students, and have zero tolerance for failure; using an integrated, thematic curriculum and an instructional model that is highly interpersonally interactive.

To turn to James Coleman again, the school needs to make up for the deficit in “social capital” that a few generations ago was provided by family and church — a sense of belonging, a feeling of being respected, and the creation of a bond of trust, the willingness to forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven times. Those aspects of “social capital” are a function of interpersonal relationships, not of fancy technology.

The anecdotal data from the youth who have survived a childhood in the “culture of poverty” again and again speak of those teachers who broke through defensive attitudes. In 1972, 45 years ago, Seymour Sarason published an insightful volume titled “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change.” Sarason underlines the challenge the school faces when the cultural experience of the school population (living in chaos; whom can one trust; a need to grab immediate gratification lest there may be none; the lack of hope and dreams) is so much at odds with school and teacher expectations. We need to open doors that change the “seize the day” perspective and re-introduce the American dream.

The evidence shows that the traditional public school system is the best, perhaps the only, setting to explore and develop such reform. It will not be done by philanthropic foundations, often with ideological emphases, though their assistance with financial support is welcome; nor by for-profit corporations or organizations where profit is the goal; the public charter schools having strayed from their original focus, have become a system parallel to the traditional public schools and not a research-development resource to public education; publicly-funded private school attendance is, at best, a token action.

If you search for programs that are successful, you will find them in the public school system. There, people have direct experience with the problem; they have facilities to accommodate diversity of programs within the same physical structures; they have personnel to adapt to the new approaches.

The State Board and local boards of education should seize this opportunity while the General Assembly’s duty is to encourage the revolution by funding exploration and effectiveness. Free, universal, compulsory and mandated education is America’s most successful social program; let’s stop the search for magic interventions and use the abundant information available to expand its effectiveness.

(Mahan has held a variety of positions in education, including public schooll teacher, college professor and dean, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese in Charleston, S.C. and principal of Brevard Academy, the local charter school.)


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