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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Restoring American Exceptionalism

Last night I went to "Restoring American Exceptionalism" at the Douglas County Events Center. It was an event of the National School Choice Week.

I went to see who would speak, and what main themes they would work. I wish I'd poked a little more into who was bankrolling all this.

Although I arrived a little too late to hear the first introduction, I believe it was Steve Kelly, KNUS Radio host. He said several interesting things: "We've lost something, folks, and need to restore it." What that was, he didn't say.

He mentioned "Americans for Prosperity," a group with links to the Koch brothers. He said that his own kids went to public school, "but this isn't about my kids." Why is it, I wonder, that people feel they need to force choices they themselves don't want?

The big themes: first, competition is good. If he shops at Walmart and finds bad apples, he goes to ANOTHER Walmart. (This is competition?)

Second: when he asked five different groups (how selected he did not say) of parents, kids, teachers, administrators and elected officials what was wrong with schools, they all blamed teacher unions. Although no evidence was cited for that conclusion (the state of the schools), either.

Then Professor Hugh Hewitt, author of a hagiography of Mitt Romney talked about how the worst school in America was the unified school district of Los Angeles, and the school near it, Compton, was worse than a prison. He praised parochial schools, which he attended as a child in the 60s, and how they were affordable to ordinary families ($300 a year back then). He praised the tuition tax credit of Arizona, and the Great Hearts Arizona charter school. "Unless and until teacher unions are broken," he said, "we will have Compton replicating, not Great Hearts." Question: are Arizona students now acknowledged as the highest achieving in the United States? (No. But see this state by state comparison by the US Chamber of Commerce.)

There was some meandering discussion about funding. According to State Senator Keith King who spoke the night before (don't know to whom), Colorado offers $11,000 per student (combined state and local aid). With an average class size of 25 (it's higher than that in Douglas County!) that's $275K per K-12 class. Where does the money go? No answer - but I guess we're supposed to think there's something suspicious about it.

Bob Schaffer, chairman of the state board of education, and former legislator, then spoke at length. Pronouncing school choice "the most important public policy topic in the United States," he began by referring to the Founders' belief that "we won't last long if we don't have an educated populace." 

He then cited Milt Friedman's cost and quality matrix. The idea seems to be that the only time you care about cost and quality is when you're spending your own money on yourself. He touched on the 1994 charter school act, then alleged that the performance record of charter schools is "quite good." 

But in fact, it's about the same as the performance of regular public schools (see this report), which seems to me to disprove in one go both the premise that school choice is a panacea, or that unions are the key factor in preventing educational achievement or improvement.)

He got applause when he said that "Parents bear the first responsibility for education."

Then he said, "If you trust government workers outside your own family, I guarantee your children will not be successful."

That's the kind of astonishing statement I go to these meetings to hear. So, all (union) teachers fail? No one who has gone to public school can be successful? Really? The statement is both false and absurd.

It was announced that there were 1200 people in the audience, which seemed about right. The show was also broadcast to Michigan, Nebraska, California, and Wyoming. 

Dan Gerken (Douglas County School Board member) spoke briefly about the voucher experiment, and announced that he thought an appeal would be heard this April, and he expected a Supreme Court decision by the end of next year. 

Dick Morris spoke. He used to be a strategist for Bill Clinton (where he advocated for pushing bad teachers out of schools, but he said that strategy didn't work). He was behind "No child left behind," but he said that didn't work, either. So we need competition. And that will work because... ?

To sum up: I wasn't impressed. Charter school data, in which we have lots of schools that waived union contracts, pretty clearly prove that teacher unions aren't the problem. In fact, it would be refreshing to hear a nice, succinct description of just what problem this group IS trying to solve.

And here's something else worth considering. Being "happy" with your choices is NOT the same thing as making good ones (in the domain of either cost OR quality). Educational accomplishment isn't about reinforcing the values of your parents; it's about demonstrable mastery and application of content. And there just isn't much evidence here that "choice" by itself results in that.

On the other hand, every chair had a free, pretty spiffy canary yellow scarf on it. It has "National School Choice Week" stitched into one end. It is 100% polyester fleece, made in China, and was wonderfully warm around my neck as I walked home. I don't know who paid for it, but I'm grateful.

8 comments:

kcneel said...

As always, you hit the nail right on the head! Thank you for your comments and thoughts. (Oh, how I miss your columns already!) Mark and I attended the VIP event prior to the big show but did not stay, compliments of Mike Boyle. A lot of the conversation was dominated by national presidential machinations and Obama-bashing. There was some conversation about the topic at hand but the headliners saved most of their thoughts for the main stage. We did not stay for the big show as I wanted to watch the SOTU address. I am not sure what the general crowd was like but the VIPers were a tad angry -- they came to the conclusion that Obama was without question the worst president in the history of the U.S. (There was some debate on whether Buchanan, Carter or Obama was worse but our current POTUS quickly took the honors.) I was somewhat taken aback by what I took to be veiled racial undertones to the vitriol. All in all, I learned a lot by just attending the pre-event but it sounds like what I really missed out on is a dandy scarf. Darn it.
KC Neel

kcneel said...

Upon reading my post, I goofed. I was appreciative of Mike Boyle's invitation to the VIP Event prior to "Restoring American Exceptionalism." We did not leave because of him, which is what my grammatical error insinuated. My bad. This is the reason I have always thanked the stars for editors. ;)

Jamie said...

Thanks, KC. What I like about a blog is I can keep going back and editing. It never comes out right the first time!

But please, Obama is our worst president? It would be funny if it weren't so sad. One thing Obama said is absolutely true: we can't go back to the philosophy that got us into this mess.

Lynne said...

Thanks for the great summary. I also read The Denver Post article and was intrigued by a number of comments. Such as comparing our schools to Compton in Los Angeles, and part of one comment. People came "...to hear speakers describe the failings of public schools and the promise offered by alternatives such as charter schools, open enrollment and vouchers."

I hear this so often. Voucher opponents are called anti-charter, when we are not against them when they are used strategically. But then they separate charters from public schools when charters are, in fact, public schools. They say they support public schools, but they really support charters, not neighborhood schools. That's fine, but then say what you really mean.

In DCSD, we have had open-enrollment for as long as I can remember. Many districts have not and when vouchers are approved, they are simply for open-enrollment, but the voucher supporting group doesn't get that.

And don't even get me started on President Obama. The disrespect and pure hatred shown toward him is something I don't think I've ever seen directed at a president before. I hate to play the race card, but I more than believe it's in play. That and religious intolerance. He's not a Muslim, but some family members are. They know the best way to make people dislike him is to try and make him an extremist Muslim. So not only do they lie, but they perpetuate the myth that non-Christians are bad. Crazy...

Just a Mom said...

Mr. LaRue,

Thank you for attending the school choice event on Tuesday, and for sharing your perspective---one that is not a surprise.

One comment in particular stands out to me in your column:

"And here's something else worth considering. Being "happy" with your choices is NOT the same thing as making good ones (in the domain of either cost OR quality)."

Why not? Who should determine whether a choice is "good", if not the parent? You? If a parent is "happy" with their choice for THEIR child, then why is it not necessarily a good choice?

And Lynne, I attended the event on Tuesday, so please allow me to clarify something that you misunderstood. Hugh Hewitt lives in Southern California and he knows the Compton situation well. He does not live in Douglas County and I doubt he knew anything at all about our specific schools before he came here. He was not making any kind of a local comparison. This event was not ABOUT Douglas County. It was held here and because of that, there was a local board member invited to speak. But National Schools Choice Week is...national. Events like this are being held all week all over Colorado and the nation.

Jamie said...

Just a Mom:

First, my wife and I homeschooled our kids. Then I co-founded the first parent-initiated charter school in the state (and chose its curriculum, setting the standard for Colorado charter schools for a decade). I have worked on the development, at both local and state levels, of curriculum. I get the idea of choice. And both of my kids wound up graduating from K-12 near the top of their classes, with college offers that included scholarships. I've thought a lot about these issues.

Parents will and do choose what they think works for their kids. But being happy about your choice doesn't mean that your children are competitive in objective standards of academic performance. A "good choice" in my view is "performs well on objective tests." You can love your teacher, love your principal, and have a child who can't read at the end of 2nd grade, can't do double-digit multiplication at the end of 5th, and by the end of high school, doesn't have a clue what the principles of evolution might be. If that happens a lot (way substandard performance compared to academic peers) then yeah, I'm the guy who says "you made a bad choice." No matter how happy you are with it. The United States isn't even in the top 20 of academic performance. I think that matters.

As for choice and Douglas County, our students (until recently) were among the top two best performing schools in the state. What's the problem we're trying to fix again? If you want to pick a private school, are they doing better than the public option in those measures, or worse? If worse, then how can you claim public funds for it? If you don't KNOW if it's doing better...then shouldn't you?

We ALL have choice. But some of us don't use it very well. And there are real world consequences.

Just a Mom said...

Mr. LaRue,

Thank you for your response to my comment. In many ways, you have made my argument for me. I am unhappy with the academic standards of a lot (not all) of public schools---yes, even in Douglas County. I was lucky, for a lot of years, to have my children in a public charter school that ALWAYS sought to push their students to higher levels of excellence. If test scores are a measure, then surrounding public schools often fail in comparison to that charter school!

Do you presume that parents are so stupid that they pay (sometimes a large amount of money) for a private education that is sub-standard to the private schools? I find that notion terribly arrogant.

I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I'm very thankful that you are NOT "the guy" who gets to judge the choices I make for my kids. I'm happy with the choices and they are good choices.

Jamie said...

Just A Mom:

It occurs to me that all we've done in this exchange is to harden a line that may not need to be there. Am I trying to advocate that parents have to simply accept whatever the system offers, whether or not it's a good fit for your child, or directly contradicts your deeply held values? I am NOT. Am I saying that all parents make bad choices and the school system will always make a better one? Of course not.

And are you trying to suggest that academic achievement doesn't matter? That public systems should fund educational systems even if, by objective standards of academic achievement, they are WORSE than the public option? Probably not. I hope not.

Are you asserting that parents will ALWAYS make the best choice for their child? My own experience argues against that. Human beings make mistakes, whether they're parents or teachers.

In fact, I assume that most parents, and most schools employees, are actually trying to act in the best interests of the child.

Some charter schools do better than public. Some public schools do better than charter. You can look at the annual report card of Douglas County and see it. And yes, sometimes parents do pay a large amount of money to private schools that are sub-standard in academic achievement to the public schools. Why? Because they're spending their money on something other than academic achievement: because it matches a religious belief, or because they had a bad experience at a public school with a principal, a teacher, or other kids.

I'm not saying those things don't matter. But I *am* saying that if we give public dollars to an educational system, we can't forget objective measures of student performance. And just incidentally, it's hard to get those measures for some private schools. But I never heard that issue mentioned even ONCE at the "Restoring American Exceptionalism." I did hear a lot of anti-teacher union talk -- and as I cited above, that premise has been resoundingly defeated.

So I hope we can hear each other. I'm not trying to take away "choice." I just think we need to be honest about just how well schools actually perform, and stop making enemies (of either teachers or people on opposite side of a political divide) when I should think ultimately we all want the same thing: good schools for our kids. We'll never get there if we DON'T take objective measures into account.