Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Learning from Pollution

They have a saying in wastewater treatment: the solution to pollution is dilution. Apparently if you flush effluent downstream with enough clean water it is not only less noxious but also less noticeable. Of course this works only when you have enough clean water.

It seems like public schools may operate on the same principle.

Suppose a system holds back one thousand students due to academic failure. Now that sounds like a lot. But what if you reported that only one percent of the students failed to advance while an overwhelming majority, ninety-nine percent, advanced and many excelled. You failed the same number of students, but now it isn't as noticeable.

Unfortunately, people are noticing. They not only see the "expected" failures (IE: someone else's child) they are beginning to understand that their children cannot compete with students educated elsewhere. Many are beginning to conclude that their children receive the "finest education available" solely because it is the only education available to them. Consequently many believe vouchers are the best way to fix this problem.

But not all agree. Dave Belton, a Republican Board of Education member in Morgan County, has written a point-counterpoint guest editorial against vouchers for the AJC. To be fair, the question put to the writers was "Will Public Schools Suffer Under Vouchers?" and the direct answer is obvious: anything which reduces the size of a mature bureaucracy is harmful to the bureaucrats and consequently to the bureaucracy. Our Public Schools are a very mature bureaucracy.

When you read Mr. Belton's op-ed piece, you can easily get lost in the usual educrat talking points: SATs are somehow flawed while self-assessments are not; social obligation to educate every child contradicting the depiction of parents as the ultimate shareholder; etc. In short, the Kool-Aid is talking. But then there is the territory all public school apologists approach but none fully explore:
"I have nothing against private schools. But please don’t pretend that poor kids are going to be able to use these small vouchers to get into the private school of their choice. Private schools only accept kids they want, and these vouchers won’t be nearly large enough to pay for good private schools. No, what will happen is that rich kids will use these vouchers to flee public schools in droves, leaving poor kids to wither on the vine —- unfunded and uncared for."
It appears Mr. Belton proposes to hide the pollution of the impoverished by diluting it with what he implies is the manifest superiority of the wealthy. He is saying what few in, or taking, his position will say: that poor kids, by and large, are doomed to failure in our Public Schools. Or perhaps he is suggesting that their success depends on the presence of the children of means more so than it does the teachers, administrators or board members. In fact, without these other, richer children, he claims the poor will be unfunded and uncared for.

Now the unfunded part is just nonsense. School funding is per full time equivalent student, which in DeKalb means "any student in home room on March 5th." Turns out they don't ask for a Parent Financial Aid Form, they just count heads.

The uncared for part is absolutely amazing. It says that the poor are neglected not only by their own parents but they are also uncared for by those underpaid, self-sacrificing professionals who toil tirelessly in our Public Schools. That teachers and administrators cannot choke down the Ripple without cleansing their palette with Perrier. He is also clearly stating that Public Schools fail the poor and the system needs the rich to dilute this failure. He has correctly concluded that subjecting Public Schools to objective measures of success and failure would reveal that Public Schools fail those who need them most and hide behind those who will succeed regardless.

While this particular component of his anti-voucher argument is repulsive, it remains difficult to support vouchers. After all, it really isn't the parent's money and if there is a societal obligation to educate there should be an equal, if not greater, parent-student obligation to learning--and this simply isn't there.

However, it is equally difficult to support Public Schools--if we didn't have them, would we create them and would they look anything like what we have now?

But Mr. Belton is right about some things. First, the ultimate shareholder is, or should be the parent, and the best way to hold a school accountable is to hold the parent accountable (IE: responsible) for their own children's education. And that starts with money. And second, a vast majority of our successful students will ultimately be in private schools, leaving Public Schools for children of those who cannot or will not meet their parental responsibility.