How Good is Your Public School?

Richard John Neuhaus writes that school choice is a moral issue, but that many middle-class families, with some justification, fear that vouchers would harm their own children’s schools. We certainly think those fears are misplaced, but the question got us thinking: How good are those schools, anyway?

The Pacific Research Institute asked that question of schools in some of California’s upscale cities. Granted, there are many differences between California and Kansas, but the findings of the Institute’s recent book Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice is illuminating, and suggestive.

First, the authors consist of individuals with deep roots in education. One, who has taught mathematics in high school and middle school, has also served as a principal and district superintendent. Another taught elementary school children for 18 years, and also worked in both talented and gifted as well as Title I programs. A third, who has taught school for two years, is currently a Ph.D. student in American history. A fourth has a Ph.D. in political science, and has taught at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). The fifth author, who is actually the lead author, has written extensively on education policy and has worked in a number of public offices, such as the governing board of California’s community colleges.

So these folks know research, and they know education.

In their conclusion–not a bad place to start reading the book, by the way–the authors point out that the wealth of the coastal communities such as Orange County and San Francisco do not translate into superior test scores. Neither do conservative social values of the Central Valley and other inland areas of the state.

Part of the blame, they say, goes to an inappropriate model of management and labor relations. Principals lack the ability to assign teachers on the basis of need, and they can’t get rid of inept teachers. Further, wealthy communities are certainly not immune to having school officials who embezzle, commit fraud, and simple manage poorly. Existing reform efforts such as the state accountability system and No Child Left behind are inadequate and subverted.

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