Choice Without Accountability Puts Children at Risk

Choice Without Accountability Puts Children at Risk
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RCEd Commentary

Can the bipartisan alliance on public school choice hang together in the age of President Donald Trump? That’s a pressing question following last week’s nomination of Michigan school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

School choice has a proud progressive history. At various times, union leaders like Albert Shanker and Randi Weingarten, iconic progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Chicago Mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, Governors Jerry Brown (D-CA) and Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), and countless other Democrats at the federal, state and local level, have embraced school choice in one form or another.

Public school choice has an even more robust conservative history, based on conservative principles of free markets and competition. Public school choice has enjoyed strong support from Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan, as well as the vast majority of Republican elected officials at all levels of government.

With close to 7,000 public charter schools in 43 states and voucher or tax credit programs in about 30 states -- allowing low-income children to use public dollars to attend private schools -- school choice is thriving. But there are signs of trouble for the bipartisan alliance that has brought public school choice to millions of low-income parents.

The grand bargain at the heart of the school choice movement is accountability for autonomy. In exchange for performance goals linking a charter school’s survival to academic results and other student outcomes, they are freed up from bureaucracy and red tape that limits innovation and flexibility.

Education Secretary–designate DeVos has fought efforts to rein in Michigan’s charter schools. Today, her state has 40 separate entities authorized to approve public charter schools and 80% of charters are run by for-profits compared to 13 percent nationally. Michigan also has numerous virtual charter schools showing mixed results.

Massachusetts, by contrast, with some of the best charter schools in the country, has just one authorizer, and no for-profit charters.

Overall, Michigan charter schools marginally out-perform traditional public schools, but that’s only in comparison to some of the lowest-performing schools in the entire country, especially in Detroit. Michigan is one of only five states to see a decline in reading scores since 2003 and many charter advocates, both inside and outside the state, believe more oversight is needed.

President-elect Trump has said nothing about accountability but he has promised to spend $20 billion on school choice programs. It’s unclear if Trump will try to fund this with new dollars or with existing dollars currently dedicated to poor children and students with disabilities. Either way it will trigger a firestorm on the left and the right.

Meanwhile, the new federal law governing K-12 education weakens federal oversight and pushes back to states responsibility for protecting “at-risk” populations of students, low-income students, students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities.

In 2017, 33 of those states will have Republican governors and 25 of them will also have Republicans in control of both houses of the legislatures: the so-called political “trifecta.” Just six states will be under complete Democratic control, with the rest divided. Most schools, of course, are governed by elected school boards who swear by local control.

This combination of free-marketers in Washington and local control zealots at the state and local level could launch an era of low accountability that undermines the grand bargain for charters (increased autonomy and flexibility in exchange for increased accountability). And no such bargain exists with school vouchers, which face little to no oversight, which is one reason that progressives are split on the voucher issue.

Another issue for progressives is that nearly 90 percent of charter schools employ non-union teachers. Many progressives support collective bargaining rights, but many also believe parents have a greater right to choose their child’s school, even if it puts us at odds with our traditional union allies. However, when the choice movement devolves into an anti-union movement, it loses support on the left.

Finally, the school choice movement includes small-government ideologues who seem more focused on defunding education rather than improving it. More than half of all states fund education at pre-2008 levels, placing added financial pressure on local taxpayers and exacerbating inequity. Today, the United States is one of the few developed countries that spends less money educating poor kids than educating middle or upper-income kids.

In a country increasingly governed by Republicans, we need conservatives in the school choice movement. But in a school system increasingly populated by lower-income children of color, we also need progressives in the tent because, without the mostly minority, urban students exercising choice, there is no tent.

President-elect Trump and Secretary-designate DeVos need to understand that expanding school choice while weakening accountability and under-funding schools serving low-income students will not keep the bipartisan school choice coalition together.

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