Saturday, July 28, 2012

WSJ Editorial - High Hopes for School Choice in Michigan

Some education reform advocates place a great deal of emphasis on school choice - notably the development of charter schools and the use of vouchers - as the magic formula to "fix failing schools" in poor neighborhoods.  The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal picks up this mantra today with a hopeful position on new charter programs in "two of Michigan's most [troubled] districts" - Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.  Because both districts have struggled financially, they are handing over management to private charter school operator's "to save money."  The WSJ - and many other choice advocates - see this as a grand experiment that will change the face of school reform.

If it works, I am all for it.  Though, I view with suspicion a plan for school reform that was hatched simply as a way of making money.  And I have doubts about a charter school model which can turn around a "neighborhood school" by taking it over.  The key to success at charter schools is, of course, "choice."  When the plan is imposed on a neighborhood, their is no "choice" by the neighborhood constituents.  And they may resist the changes.  This happened in Denver when the KIPP program - which had operated successfully in Denver when kids "chose" to leave their neighborhood schools to attend - took over the Cole Middle School and imposed its "reforms" on a community that did not want it.  They resisted - and when KIPP managers realized they couldn't "show the kids the door" for not meeting expectations, they literally backed out.  The "experiment" failed.

The WSJ - and others - seem to believe the Michigan experiment will be successful because the districts "will not be bound by labor agreements."  That is a rather narrow view of the problems in schools like Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.  This position runs home to ideology and assumes that schools in economically disadvantaged areas are struggling because union teachers who can't be fired are the cause of failing schools.  Certainly, there is argument that a lot of bad teachers - or formerly good teachers who have given up - are not helping the problems in these schools.  And the WSJ validly argues that they districts can save money by going with the charters.  However, school turnaround requires long term commitment, and history shows that places that give up workplace rules in order to reform eventually begin to ask for those rules back.  Or the teachers will leave for "better" working conditions.  What may happen - like the common pattern in Teach for America (TFA) - is that teachers will "put their time in" for a couple years, and then make a jump to to place where they can have a career and earn a living.

Thus, I too have high hopes for Michigan.  But workplace rules aren't the cause of problems in poor schools, and getting rid of them won't ease the ills that cause most of the trouble in schools.  And, "school choice" is not necessarily the answer when the kids and parents don't actually "choose."

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