Wednesday, February 22, 2012
An evil plot is afoot to pressure the states to adopt “school choice schemes,” according to the onetime Rutland Northeast superintendent, Dr. William J. Mathis. He is currently a Shumlin appointee to the Vermont state Board of Education and managing director of the grandly named National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.
According to Mathis’s article “School Choice: What the Research Shows,” the centerpiece of the plot is the Obama administration’s pressure on states to create charter schools. Vermont is one of 13 states that do not authorize public charter schools, thanks to the surprisingly determined opposition of Gov. Howard Dean and, naturally, the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union. The idea is not popular with the public school establishment either, since allowing parents to choose charter schools for their children threatens an exodus from poorly performing traditional schools that their management may find it hard to explain when asking taxpayers for more money.
It’s not just the Obama administration either. Mathis states that “vested interest think tanks, heavily supported by the deep-pockets of the Gates, Broad, and Friedman foundations,” are also “major pushers” (as if parental choice is some kind of narcotic).
One has to wonder how think tanks can become “vested interests,” when none of them can receive any financial benefit from increased parental choice. The real vested interests in education are people whose livelihood depends on the government continuing to deliver students and money, for instance, Rutland Northeast superintendents.
In any case, Mathis has well earned the dubious accolade of being Vermont’s most persistent and extravagant opponent of giving parents more educational choices for their children. His opposition flows from a deeply held ideology derived from the well-known socialist of the 1920s, John Dewey: “The purpose of education is a democratic society.”
For Mathis, that translates into a government-operated monopoly school system, managed by far-seeing and certified experts, into whose unionized schools parents are required to consign their children, and for which taxpayers are required to pay whatever is deemed necessary.
Without this common education requirement, Mathis believes, parents will too often make ill-informed educational choices that appear to them better for their children, with no concern for the democratic ideal. And that’s not democratic.
In his commentary Mathis declares that “the legitimate peer-reviewed research shows that in general there isn’t any difference in test scores” between students in traditional public schools and choice programs. This is true only if one accepts Mathis’s condition that “so-called ‘research’ by groups advancing or opposing choice” are disqualified.
Last year Dr. Greg Forster (Ph.D. Yale) published a report summarizing all 10 empirical studies that used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies found that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit, and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study found no visible impact. None of these studies found a negative impact.
Forster also found, from surveying all of 19 additional studies, that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and students in “voucher-threatened” public schools, which were forced to improve to prevent an outflow of students to competing schools.
The Forster report was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, and the author clearly is enthusiastic about parental choice. For Mathis, that disqualifies his findings. But Forster examined all of the published studies on these subjects. If Mathis can disqualify them all for reaching pro-choice conclusions, there aren’t any studies left.
There was a time, in the last century, when the dominant opinion was: Let every kid go to public school, let local school boards manage them to produce self-sufficient young citizens, fend off know-it-all-mandates from experts in the state capital, and spend what local taxpayers could reasonably afford.
What has changed? The progressive centralization of control over public schools. The rise of combative, politically powerful teachers unions. Content-challenged teachers. Lower academic standards. Foolish, trendy curricula. The replacement of anything resembling the community’s moral values with behavior modification and political correctness. Deteriorating discipline and safety.
Many Vermont public schools still perform well in spite of these changed conditions. Many educated Vermont public school teachers give full value. But taken all in all, mandating that every student attend the government’s school of choice for the benefit of the school will no longer work to the benefit of many students, or of society. As no less than President Obama said, about health insurance, “My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.” That’s equally true in education, and we need to get on with empowering those consumers.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).