Improving public education through school autonomy and choice

What do we need to produce high-quality schools? School autonomy and school choice. That’s the message from the latest video from John Stossel. (Click through and you can watch it, if you’re willing to sit through a few commercials.)

There are several segments in the video, each looking at education and schooling from a different perspective. For example, a segment about charter schools visits a successful charter school in Harlem, New York. It contains what may be the most heart-breaking scene in the entire video, as  parents and grandparents mourn the fact that their children were not winners of the lottery used to fill a limited number of seats in the charter school.

In comments that would be echoed by other officials in the show, the Manhattan borough president says, in essence, that those parents are being hoodwinked into thinking that they should have their children in a charter school.

An official with the teacher union in Washington DC, meanwhile, says that vouchers are no good because they don’t cover the entire cost of private schooling (doubtless the result, at least in part, of union lobbying) and serve only a limited number of students (again, due in part to union pressure). As it turns out, opponents of school choice are both ruthlessly egalitarian (no children can benefit vouchers as long as some students are in traditional schools) and utopian (we can fix schooling to everyone’s satisfaction within te current structure).

There’s also a debate of sorts on teacher work rules. I liked a comment from Jeanne Allen on teachers: “They told me they would kick ass if they were paid for performance.” Of course, pay-for-performance is extremely rare (to the point of non-existence) in public schools.

Another segment reviews the history of Head Start, which, according to the latest federal report, has no long-term impact. To be fair, it does have some benefit for children in the program while they are in the program, but not beyond that.

Another segment looks at private schools in the third world, where parents in slums pay $1 a week–a substantial sum for them–to avoid dysfunctional government schools.

Stoessel concludes that “government funding doesn’t have to mean government run,” which I agree with. Perhaps some day we can have in K-12 a situation analogous to what we have in higher education: Some institutions are government-owned, some are privately owned, but public funding is available for students in both sorts of institutions.

If you haven’t seen Stossel’s earlier video on schooling, Stupid in America, (click here to watch it), as I preferred it to this one. Finally, one weakness of the video is that there’s too much cross-talk in some of the debates.

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