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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

School Choice Week and Allowable Growth

Its somewhat ironic to me that the Iowa legislature is debating the insultingly low allowable growth rate proposed by Governor Branstad during School Choice Week.  If you read this article, pointedly against the School Choice movement, there is one undeniable fact included.  It is, as Valerie Strauss is quoted, that high achieving education systems of other countries have a distinct advantage;
“It bears mentioning that nations with high-performing school systems—whether Korea, Singapore, Finland, or Japan—have succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”
The irony is in a Marc Jacobs editorial in the Des Moines Register on Sunday.  Jacobs, a former Texan and  Iowa Senate candidate lauds the successes of charter schools, a dubious and often discredited claim.  And in the article he recognizes that Iowa demographics are changing:
Iowa's demographics are also changing. A greater percentage of our students come from low-income households, and we have a growing population of minorities. On average, children in low-income neighborhoods are 2 to 2 ½ grade levels behind their peers in higher-income areas by the time they get to eighth grade.
As a matter of fact he even recognizes that Iowa students aren't doing worse, they are just being outpaced by other states:

 . . . rather our underperformance has happened because students in other states are doing better .
If we read between the lines, when Jacobs says;
In most cases, choosing an alternative to the local public school means a significant time or financial commitment on the part of the parents, putting school choice out of the reach for many Iowa families.
and in the next paragraph;
One step we should take is to expand public charter schools in areas where parent demand can support them. 
What he is really saying is that in areas where parents may have the resources to pursue private school education, we should allow charter schools to avoid abiding by the rules of free and appropriate public education.  Instead, we should support parents to pay for the right to educate their children in settings that do not bear the burden of educating the learning disabled or the needy poor students.

So where is the connection between Marc Jacobs' School Choice and Terry Brandstad's low support for public education?  It is in the Attendance Center Rankings soon to be released as the new level of accountability in public schools.  From the Jacobs editorial;
Gov. Terry Branstad recognized this and has wisely made improving education one of his top priorities. In 2013, the governor signed an education reform bill into law, and our group, Reaching Higher Iowa, was engaged in the conversation. The final bill reflected our recommendation to develop a new accountability system. It is an important first step, but much work remains to be done.
Now, as a superintendent of two public school districts I am far from afraid to compare our efforts with other public schools.  As a matter of fact I look forward to seeing where we need to focus our efforts and what other, higher performing public schools can do to help us do better.  However if these rankings become fodder for School Choice advocates to prove the "failure" of public schools, then I have a couple problems.

First of all, private and charter schools DO NOT educate the same population that public schools do.  They have the freedom to choose not to serve the disabled, to reject the poor or emotionally disturbed.  By comparison, public schools educate all who darken their door.  Only when achievement data for both includes the same populations can they claim superiority to public schools. The accuracy and validity of the metrics used to rank public schools should be irrefutable.  When an organization such as Mr. Jacobs' KIPP Academy, which will sometime soon be interested in public funding through vouchers from a government who holds the purse strings of the public schools, then any accountability standards that are intended to report on the successes or failures of the public schools should NOT BE developed with input from supporters of school choice.

Governor Branstad claims to have a goal of making Iowa education the best in the nation.  Yet he and his party are not willing to provide funding that will even come close to closing the gap between Iowa and the median funding levels of our 50 states.  We cannot strengthen the education profession with a system that places us $1600 behind the average commitment of other states.

As public schools, we've been urged to study the successes of Finland by members of the Governor's staff.  So, in The Smithsonian article on Finnish education  we find this:
In 1963, the Finnish Parliament made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive."
I'm not enough of a conspiracy theorist to think these decisions are connected by some smoke filled room of politicians, but the confluence of these efforts adds up to higher pressures on public schools to perform.  If we are to compete with the Finlands of the world, our society has to make a decision similar to the Finn's.  If that decision making is clouded by competing interests, then reaching the right decision for every student will be difficult.   By advocating for public schools, we are advocating for all children.  Please keep that in mind as we debate appropriate funding for public schools.

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