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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where education reform is heading: From extreme to extremum

By Valerie Strauss

If you want to understand where public education reform is heading, look south and east to Florida, where the governor-elect, Rick Scott, is talking about a new funding student formula that is more likely to destroy the public school system than accomplish anything else.

Scott wants to expand a voucher program that allows low-income and disabled students to use public money to go to private schools to ALL students.

Here’s how it would work, according to a preliminary plan: Vouchers, euphemistically termed “education savings accounts,” would be created and the state would deposit public education funds into them for each eligible students. Parents would shop for the school they like -- public or private -- and help pay for it with 85 percent of the state’s per-student funding figure -- which this year is $6,843.

State public education money would no longer flow through a public education system.

The idea may well be the most radical public education idea any state has ever considered, as the St. Petersburg Time noted.

Once upon a time in America, it may have sounded preposterous not only in concept but in chances of implementation.

But the Republicans in Florida, who just tightened their control in the state capital in the last election, are making in clear that they are determined to push for such a system in the state legislature next year.

There are legal, constitutional and other hurdles, but in today’s political and education atmosphere, no bad idea is impossible to implement.

There have long been those who have advocated for the destruction of the current system; in a 2007 Weekly Standard article, author David Gelernter argues for a system of private schools that would be paid for with public funds. Sound familiar?

A 2009 paper by the conservative Goldwater Institute in Arizona, outlined how a universal voucher program could work, and it was supported by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, one of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s vehicles for promoting change. Bush is still the most powerful politician in the Sunshine State.

The notion that private schools would inherently be any better than a system of public schools overlooks all the key factors -- poverty being the first but not the only one -- that affect our most troubled public schools right now.

Such a system in Florida faces a number of obstacles. The Florida Constitution calls for a “uniform system of free public schools.” The state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down one voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarships, based on this language; two other voucher programs -- for low-income families and for disabled students -- have yet to be tested in court.

Nobody knows how much such a system would cost, or how the state would pay for it; Florida already has a $2.5 billion budget-deficit, and Scott is talking about cutting school property taxes almost 20 percent and eliminating the corporate tax, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

One of the ironies of this whole idea is that the folks who support it are big supporters of “accountability” in education. That means grading schools and students and teachers on standardized test scores. But private schools aren’t subject to this type of accountability. And some public charter schools aren’t either.

According to a summary on charter schools from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Analysis & Government Accountability: “Due to grade configurations and small enrollment, 124 out of 382 charter schools (32%) did not earn a grade or school improvement rating as part of Florida’s accountability system during the 2008-09 school year. In contrast, 353 out of 3,138 (11%) traditional public schools did not receive a grade or school improvement rating.”

The public school systemin the United States, however flawed, has been the country’s most important civic institution.

From education historian Diane Ravitch:

“There is a strong rationale for public support of public education. As Robert Hutchins once wrote, they are part of the res publica, the public thing. Like public parks, public libraries, and fire departments, they are part of our communal responsibility. We must strengthen them, make them far better than they are now. To blame them for all the ills of our society, for all the demographic changes of the past generation, for all the burdens imposed by courts and legislatures, is wrong. To destroy them would be a civic crime.”

Yes, it would. But that’s where it seems like we may be headed

Taken from the Washington Post:

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