Tuesday, January 6, 2009

School choice, vouchers, and roadblocks

.

I am an 'educator', a teacher, an instructor. Not, perhaps, of a type that springs to mind when thinking about such. I don't teach math or English, or even underwater basket weaving. I'm an instructor in an auto mechanics program, teaching mostly high school seniors with some adults strewn in for flavor. It's a special circumstance, as teaching goes.

I reached my teaching position after a long career in the industry, like most technical instructors. We are a different bunch and not at all like 'regular' education teachers. Most of us in technical education did not start out to be teachers. We skipped the whole 'degree in education' pathway and jumped right to teaching our trade, mostly from a desire to help kids succeed. Sure, we still end up in an education degree college program, but it's not the same. Another day I'll write about that special bit of extortion, but not today.

In this post... I want to talk about school choice, school vouchers, and how it's going to work its way into the educational industry.

This may be a shocker... but here's a bit of news. I am fully in favor of school vouchers and school choice. I agree with the idea of parents being able to choose their children's school, and the various government entities that funnel money to education should provide payment for that equal to what a student costs the public school system. The parents should be able to take that money to any school they wish for their children, with no strings attached. All of it, in an amount fully equal to what the assigned public school would have received.

Is that a sucking intake of horrified fear I hear? Is someone about to warm up the tired old phrase "It Will Damage The Public School System Beyond Repair"? To that I cry 'Bovine Excrement' in full force. The reality proves school choice to be a better system in every instance it's been used. The evidence is clear. The students who can choose their school excel, and the schools that lose students to choice programs also seem to improve for some reason (Perhaps fear of losing their jobs has something to do with it). A viable and dynamic school system must be challenged to work better, just like any other organism.

The chief opponent of school choice and voucher programs are teachers unions and entrenched administrations. They see a parent's ability to flee failed schools as a challenge to their authority, and more to the point, a threat to their continued employment. While the arguments are often couched in terms of 'better education for the children', the reality always turns that argument into a lie.

A perfect illustration, and one that's being watched very carefully from all sides, is the McKay scholarship program in Florida. This program caters to students with 'disabilities'; In other words, students who have had a determination of special needs education. By using the McKay program, parents of such students may enroll their children in private school and it will be paid for by the school district up to the full amount of a public education, or the full amount of the private tuition. Not surprisingly, the private school tuition is almost always less than the public school costs, and the districts are saving money with the McKay program.

Several points have become clear since the inception of the program, and are noteworthy in the extreme. First, and foremost, the program has been in effect long enough to make statistical evidence possible. Without exception, the overwhelming majority of special needs students who have chosen private school over public have seen marked improvements in their education. Bullying is down by 90%, testing scores have improves remarkably, and student social skills show amazing gains. Moreover, and placing opponents in a very tough moral position, the overall test scores of the public school students left behind have also increased significantly. Adding insult to injury, the public school districts costs for special needs education has dropped by amounts greater than the outlay of McKay program funding.

Given the tooth and nail fight by unions and administration against school choice... the thought comes up: How did this program manage to survive long enough to prove the reality of the situation beyond question? The answer is simple.... no one was willing to challenge the rights of special needs students and their parents to seek a better education. While every other school voucher program in the state of Florida has sunk under lawsuit after lawsuit, the naysayers have not been able to nerve themselves to sue special needs students. Doing so would reveal the true nature of their complaint; Loss of money, power, and authority.

The Florida McKay program is the camel's nose under the tent... and it's a big hairy camel with a serious attitude problem. Parents who care about their children's education are taking note, and are warming to the fight. There is change in the air, and it smells of educational union blood.

This program has the opportunity to spread like wildfire, and it's all due to a quiet little trend in public education over the last generation or two. It's become financially valuable to hang a label on a student. For each student who can have a 'special needs' name plate attached, more funding becomes available, and at least as importantly, testing becomes a special circumstance with different expectations. It's little known outside the education industry (public school) but a large number of students have now been classified as 'special needs'. These students have an I.E.P (Individualized Education Plan) and have personnel and programs assigned to them. All this costs money, and has become an industry in it's own right.

How far has the 'special needs student' labeling disease spread? In many schools over half the students carry such a label. Every time a student fails to perform to arbitrarily set standards, his educational, psychological, and emotional makeup is called into question. Never, ever, may the conclusion be 'The lazy little snit needs a kick in the ass', nor will the efficacy of the normal education program be called into question. The conclusion, in almost every case, will be a determination of special needs education. This, in turn, means a serious source of funding to the school districts and an opening for legislators (and unions) to take over schools from local control. 'Special education' programs are mandated, and not under the control of local school boards.

How will this backfire on the naysayer's of school choice and voucher programs? For many, many years hew and cry has been 'more money is needed for special needs students'. More money.... more money..... and more money. Always.... more money. Now the McKay scholarship program for students with special needs has placed that prevarication squarely under the spotlight, and since many schools have managed to label so many of their students as special needs they have also opened the way for the McKay program to spread nation wide.

Now, one might ask why I, as a public school teacher, am in favor of school choice. My answer is simple.... I see it work, and I see it every day. My students are not forced to attend my program, nor any other in my technical school. Quite the reverse... they have to chose to attend, apply for a position, and undergo a selection process (no matter how flawed). We are, in effect, an alternative school paid for by a voucher system (in a way). While other public schools have attendance rates of 50% t0 80%, ours is typically 95% or better. Our graduation rate is better than 98%. Our programs do not languish in mediocrity, but are constantly encouraged and even forced to better themselves.

We have to be better, and we have to offer a better education... because nobody is forced to come to our school. They have a choice.

3 comments:

Crucis said...

How about a special need for a student to be able to read, write, and do basic math and algebra? My wife tutors 6-9 year old kids in reading. Why? Because the public school doesn't. My wife uses phonics and other similar techniques that allow a reader to understand, read and pronounce new words. The local school is in "sight read" program. Don't know the word? Skip it and go on. The local schools don't bother with spelling either. They just let the kids use whatever they want and it's OK.

It's a travesty.

Jean said...

This is what education should be.
For the students, not the schools.
I hope the trend continues for all the right reasons.

Anthony said...

Amen on that one. I am certain that Education became about more than the child when the Dept of Education became an asinine, money grubbing, agency.

I am glad I am not the only person who believes that kids and parents should have a choice of where to send their children. The very good public schools will do fine, the bad ones will either get better or close. I am not sure why people think that ending failure is bad.