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.