Transcription of press briefing "A Primer on America's Schools"
We are all here with the exception of two of our Task Force members, one of which is Don Hirsch or Edie Hirsch, who were not able to be with us today, and the other is Diane Ravitch, who is with us, but with us from New York. You might keep in mind that Diane is on the phone, and I encourage you, Diane, to jump in at any time, and if you have specific thoughts or questions for Diane, you might mention that.
The intent of this session was simply to have a conversation, and we thought that it would be good to invite our friends and, principally, former media fellows, to come to Hoover and engage this task force that is dealing with K-12 education. Specifically, the Koret Task Force was an idea by Tad Tovey and myself. We realized that there were many terrific education reform- minded people around the country, but acting, relatively speaking, independently. The idea was "wouldn't it be good if we could bring these people together and exploit the idea of teamwork?" We have done that, not in a one-time way, but to engage one another for a minimum of five years. Tad Tovey, the president of the Koret Foundation, was very much forthcoming in having his colleagues support the effort, and, on top of that, many other Hoover supporters have, in a very responsive way, moved forward in supporting a broader initiative on K-12 education. Simply put, it will address the issues of productivity of our K-12 education system in this country and to assess whether or not we should be pleased with the status quo. That is indeed what we are addressing over these years.
The first project that we did jointly was to produce what we thought was a primer on the current state of affairs in American education. That primer is now available, and we have copies in the room. I think we sent each of you copies for your purview before coming out. We had a fantastic response in terms of media professionals to come and join us. Indeed, forty-three media professionals were expected at this forum. You are the brave professionals, or the twenty that were able to get away and take the time during these incredibly trying circumstances. I personally can't thank you enough for being willing to come out, and we have really wanted to stick to our guns and try to proceed with the forum. Again, I thank you.
That gives you an overview. I can certainly answer questions during the course of the dialogue. Now I would like to call on the editor of this primer, Terry Moe, to briefly introduce that work, with no more than about five minutes of remarks. Then we want to throw it open, and I will serve as moderator while we have a dialogue on what you think that we should be thinking about in terms of K-12 issues from your perspective. You can push us around a bit about some of the ways we think about things.
I think you sitting at the tables do have a listing of members of the task force with brief descriptions of each of us. Terry.
Thank you John and thank you all for coming under these trying circumstances. We're all here to talk about education, and interesting and controversial ideas in education reform. That's really what our primer is about. What I want to do here is to provide a few introductory remarks, and to provide a jumping-off point for any questions you might have of us, and we are looking forward to what we are addressing here. Let me begin by saying that this is a nation that for the last few decades, and really a lot longer than that, has perpetually been involved in education reform. There has been a whirlwind of education reform. Part of the reason is that people in this country are convinced that we must do something to make the schools better. In some instances, it is a very laudatory thing, that we are dedicated as a nation to doing something about the schools. But another reason, and a fundamental one, for the perpetual concern for education reform is that the reforms that we have tried again and again and again don't work. We have been engaged in a process of failure for decades. What this nation really needs are good ideas and good evidence on what works. In the past, ideas and evidence have been generated almost entirely by researchers on education who are located in education schools. The fact of the matter is that people in education schools, and I don't mean to offend anybody, are up to their necks in this system. They train teachers and they train administrators, but are not in the business of promoting fundamental change of the system.
The kinds of ideas that we've gotten over the years and the kinds of results from them have not worked. The fundamental idea behind the creation of the Koret Task Force is to set up an alternative center of expertise on educational issues with people who are not connected to education schools, people who can and do think outside the box about important issues of education reform. Basically, very few other people are doing that, doing research on it, and offering serious evidence. That is why we've been collected in one place.
The primer is our first product, and in it you will find articles that really cover the map, ranging from the basic structure of the system to chapters on school spending, on school achievement, on the role of families and schools-- is it mainly family, or mainly schools, or what is it?-- on teacher training, on teachers' unions, on school choice, and more. What we've tried to do here is to provide a broad overview of the education system. We have put together basically is what is known about features of the system, what the basic problems seem to be, and to offer some perspective on all that. So, in one book we have collected a lot of information on the schools that is acceptable to a wide audience. We hope it will help to structure debate in this country about what should be done and what can be done, about new directions and change in policy. Our hope is that this book will have an impact, and that over the long run it will help to get us off this treadmill of reform, so that we will actually begin in engaging in reforms that work.
That is my opening, and now I am going to turn it over to you and am happy to take any questions you might have. (316)
II. Teaching Methods
You make a point that is probably right, that the education establishment is overtly sympathetic to a constructivist, progressive, discovery-leaning kind of approach. But I've had great trouble finding such people teaching in schools. I've been to a lot of high schools, and except for a few middle school math courses, I have not been able to find anyone who is teaching that way. Most of them are traditional. What evidence do you have that that bias on the part of the people at the top of the system has actually seeped down and affected most teachers, or perhaps it hasn't.
Well, I certainly, as Mr. Matthews knows, or journalists here know, that I've been involved in some of these controversies involving teaching practices, particularly to try to loosen the imposition of discovery learning, progressive education, constructivist policies. I do find that it is a problem at the high school level, not simply at the elementary and middle school level, and I give you an example in Santa Cruz. We had a school, Soquel High School, that had a very effective, solid traditionalist education, subject matter-oriented teaching style. The central administration broke it up and moved the teachers all around. The teachers actually filed a grievance and won that grievance that this was simply an ideological crusade against them. I know, Mr. Matthews, that you do things like sending e-mail letters out to teachers that read your stuff, saying "please tell me about what's happening." You can only find out what you find out, and I receive some things that I find out.
I'll give you another example. This is not in mathematics, this one's in science. We were working on the science standards for the standard system here in California some years ago, and several science teachers from inner city schools in Los Angeles wanted to help as resource people. We drew on them for their expertise. They were told by the people involved in the urban systemic initiative, which is a federally-funded thing through the National Science Foundation, that essentially they were forbidden to come and give us advice about what the practices were in this urban systemic initiative. It is entirely an inquiry-based or discovery-based science program. This sort of top-down mandated imposition of academic methods does exist at the high school level as well as being something that comes at the lower levels where you don't necessarily have people who are subject-matter specialists and so forth. So it's out there. If you're asking whether somebody has some sort of thing where they have done systematic random-sample video things, it's a little more complicated because what you find is things like cooperative learning, use of manipulatives and things like this are all over the place. The ideal utopian picture of constructivist learning is not found in many classrooms, but neither is the best form of traditionalist education. It is generally a mediocrity problem.
I've talked much too long.
Hi, John, I just wanted to say something to Jay [Mathews]. Can you hear me? Jay, I think you have identified that there is a difference between high schools on the one hand and junior high and elementary schools on the other. It's the case in every state in the country that teachers in the high schools are much more subject-matter-based. They predominantly have a degree in whatever they are teaching. Teachers in elementary and middle schools predominantly do not have a degree in any subject area, they have an education degree. To the extent that people have an education degree, they tend to be more attuned to touchy-feely approaches because they don't have the subject-matter background. According to the department of education, two-thirds of high school teachers do have a subject-matter degree, a major in a subject area, and two-thirds of middle school people do not-- I'm sorry, it's 22-44-66. Twenty-two percent of elementary teachers, forty-four percent of middle school teachers and sixty-six percent of high school teachers have a subject-matter degree. That suggests to me that you get much more openness to experimenting in areas where people just don't have much subject-matter background. This happens much more in the elementary and middle schools than it does in high schools, but then, of course, the high school people have a problem because students arrive in the ninth grade and have a very hard time because the subject-matter background in the K-8 years is very little.
I'd also add that the high school teacher has an end goal that is different. They have to feed their kids into jobs or higher education, and so they are more result-oriented.
Perhaps another example that might be mentioned that was so popular right here in California about ten or fifteen years ago is about so-called whole language as a way to teach language, especially beginning reading, and this amounted to trying to teach writing, reading, and speaking at the same time, whereas the research for half a century by Gene Schall at Harvard showed that phonics and phonemic awareness are extremely important. California once had one of the finest systems of education in the United States, but managed to tie itself in last place with Mississippi on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. Since then, the National Institutes of Health, not the U.S. Department of Education, commissioned a national reading panel to assemble all the solid evidence, especially experimental evidence, on what works in beginning reading, and brought out the fact that phonics and phonemic awareness are the key ingredients in doing that. So the whole language crowd said, "Oh, well, we want a balanced approach," but when we really found out what a "balanced approach" was, it was whole language. So I I think that's a very, very good example of something that we have a good deal of scientific evidence on, yet we still have this persistence in expecting children to learn on their own instead of teaching them what they really need to know.
Jay, do you want to push back at all?
No, it's true we have no major survey. No one's gone and put out a questionnaire to five or ten thousand people about their teaching styles. We don't back up the strong anecdotal evidence that we've got a problem.
Battelle Studies tried to do a videotape study of random classrooms, but it's still a small thing. It did give the picture that I'm talking about. Certain aspects of reforms were in use, but other things that each side, the traditionalist math people and the constructivist math people, say they want to have conceptual knowledge on the part of the children, but actually neither side very often delivers it.
III. Education Establishment's Receptiveness to Change
Joanne Jacobs, San Jose Mercury News
I guess this is directed toward Terry. Do you believe that people in the education departments or the educational establishment are willing to listen to what comes out of this task force? Is there any conversation or do they think you are all right wing nuts?
I'd like to comment on that because it gives me a chance to talk about the journal that the task force serves as the board of editors for, Education Next. We started as Education Matters. Someone connected with an education school wanted us to change our name, and persuaded us to do so, so we are now known as Education Next, and what I am pleased to report is that students in schools of education are taking an interest in the ideas that the task force is putting out, the material that is being brought forward in the journal. I always think that what we're talking about when we discuss educational reform is reform over the next fifty years, not so much trying to win the hearts and minds of existing faculty members in schools of education. I know my colleagues well enough to know how easy it is to change their minds on anything, but students are very open to new ideas and very much aware of the limitations of the education system as it is today, and are looking for new ideas.
I feel that there is an audience in schools of education, and what is needed is some center or place where these ideas are articulated in a clear and thoughtful way based on solid evidence so it is convincing. The less rhetorical the presentation is and the more solidly rooted in careful research, the more persuasive it will be for the next generation. I also think that there are many people outside schools of education in other parts of the university who are beginning to take an interest in education questions. It used to be the case that to study education issues was to be not really a scholar. If you were an ecologist, an economist, a psychologist, or a political scientist, that was a field that was for those people over at the education school. That is definitely changing, and part of what this group represents is a bringing of the social science disciplines and their approach to scholarship to bear on education issues.
I think that Paul is right, that students do listen, and the younger they are, the more they listen. But I would say that the professors are not listening. It is a select group of people over there. These are people who really are wedded to the existing system, and their makeup reflects that. For example, when they recruit economists over at the education school, these are not your typical economists. They usually recruit economists who don't actually believe in markets. There aren't very many of those in the country, but they find their ways into education schools. The ideology isn't anything to do with research. Well, it does at education schools, quite a bit. A lot of the research that they produce is not good, and it reeks of ideology. And the ideology of people in education schools is not at all representative of the American public. Basically, it runs from very liberal to closet Marxists. When they have ideological debates, it is always like those kinds of debates. For the foreseeable future, they are not going to really listen to the research that we have to offer, but the impact that we have to make comes about because in the past, they were the only ones doing research. So, when business people wanted to know about education or wanted to know about public policy, they would turn to the experts and the experts were always over there in the education schools.
Now there is an alternative center to our research with people who are not necessarily supporting the existing system and trying to defend the status quo. That's the difference.
In terms of culture the education schools in particular read the piece in this journal by Tom Cooke on why the education school culture rejects serious scientific research, for starters. The whole positivist tradition, I think, is alien. In terms of the educational establishment more broadly, it's gotten clearer and clearer to me that the way you deal with it, whether it's the education school part or the school superintendent's part, you either jump over it or you circumvent it or create alternatives to it, or create competition for it. You don't try to change it. It's not going to change, except maybe under duress, and only reluctantly, not because of sweet reason. So, whether it's alternative certification for teachers or charter schools for kids, or Koret Task Forces for intellectuals, or you name it, you just leap over it, and go around it to find other ways of getting things done, you don't go right up to the front of it and say "please change your stupid ideas."
A very simple observation about education schools in comparison to other academic departments in universities, is that for the overwhelming bulk, tens of thousands of education academics, are in the day-to-day business of preparing people to work in the world of public education: teachers, administrators, and so forth, that is their world. Most education academics are not at Stanford, Harvard, or Columbia. Most of them are in state universities that prepare teachers and administrators. That's very different from any other of the academic departments of the university, so these folks are literally immersed in a world that we wonder why they are not critical of, and it's not reasonable even to expect it to change, and a key reason why they do not change. In the elite universities, I checked the syllabi, checked the sales of old books, and our stuff is assigned and everyone is expected to read it, and usually they can have target practice, but, you know, it's assigned. But it doesn't penetrate discussions in the general world of education because it's involved with teachers and administrators and getting them ready, and not with critiques of the system.
I think John said it well, and I am in an education school.
Joanne [Jacobs}, did we get at your point?
IV. Should We Be Optimistic About Reform?
David Tell, Weekly Standard
I'm wondering if we could have had this conversation in 1986 with the list of complaints that Terry just began to mention with the education schools or the unions and much the same reform agenda that Checker just tripped quickly over, and if we could have had the same conversation fifteen years ago, I wonder why you fellows might be optimistic that we won't still be having it fifteen years from now.
You're right. We could have done this in 1985, but I think it has changed dramatically. Most of us, except for Caroline (she's still youthful), but most of us have been at this for at least those twenty years if not more, and thinking back to 1985, the concept of choice in education was truly a lunatic idea. It wasn't in practice anywhere in the country. There were not charter schools, there were no voucher experiments, it wasn't part of the mainstream debate. That has really changed. Those of us who wanted to see tough standards back then really had nothing to point to. So there were many, many problems, many miles to go, but comparing today and where we were fifteen years ago is dramatically different.
On that topic, even in the past ten years, the way the policy debate has changed among policy- makers who aren't in education schools is amazing. Ten years ago, you could go to an education policy leaders' conference and choice would not be mentioned at all, and standards would maybe be mentioned a little. These two things now dominate the discussion, and I think the discussion has become a lot more sophisticated. People are no longer throwing them out as weird ideas and ending the discussion, no one having anything to say. People are having an informed discussion and can discuss some of the refinements: what went wrong in this choice program, how can it be fixed, what's wrong with this accountability system, how was it fixed someplace else? It's a sophisticated discussion, and I definitely think that's very new, and you're going to get policies when you have a sophisticated discussion where people from both sides of the aisle are able to talk about what's wrong and what's right with the policy.
I actually don't think that the discussion has changed that much in your typical education school. On the side of people in education schools, I know that (I'm at Harvard and we have an education school) there are people there who are very interested in school reforms, but I think they often feel rather embattled and also feel that they can't speak out in public. It's not that they're not interested and not attempting to read things and stay up with the literature, and maybe teaching some of it in their classes, but taking a public stance on some of these issues is very difficult for many people in education schools. (582)
If I can jump in, I think quite a lot has changed since 1986. For one thing, the company that John Chubb is involved in didn't exist, and there are a bunch of other companies like his, so there is a lot of interest in private management. We now have about two thousand charter schools and still growing. I think there are a half million kids in charter schools. There were no charter schools, I think, before 1991, so that's been a big change. We now have two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, that actually have, at least for the moment, a voucher program targeted for poor kids, so there have been changes.
The other big change that's taken place, as someone mentioned earlier, is that there are about forty-nine states that have some sort of a standards program in operation. Some of them are very good, some of them are not very good, but almost everyone is trying to make the effort. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has gotten, I think, much stronger. When Checker was chairman of the NAGBE Board, the governing board, they created real standards so that now we are able to report periodically to the nation about where American kids are in terms of learning different important subject areas in their school studies. So I think there is a lot of change, but the change is slow and there is a tendency to say that if it didn't change overnight, it didn't happen. But things are happening. There are more kids today taking geometry and chemistry and advanced topics in science and math than ever in our history, and it's particularly true for minority kids.
Rick, Checker, and Paul
I would make just one comment on how today differs from the mid-eighties. In the mid-eighties, I think there was actually some question about whether we weren't on the right course at that point in time, because, while we had some slapped scores in the mid-eighties, scores in general increased, the racial differences gaps in scores decreased, so that there were actually differences in opinion about whether we needed to do something more than just provide a lot more resources for schools. Today, we have a lot more unmet promises. Anywhere you look, scores have been slapped. We have more evidence that in fact that American schools are not performing up to international standards in math and science, and we have, in fact, put a lot more resources in schools, so I think that the data have changed to make people more skeptical about what is happening in the schools and demand more in terms of evidence that proposals are going to work in schools, and that's a healthy sign.
This conversation has been slightly too cheerful. Even though things have changed in all the ways everyone has said, since 1986, I think we could even we could even lengthen that list. David also asked about optimism with respect to the future. I really am struck by the degree of push-back that every one of these reforms is encountering today. As you go around the country and look at the effort to contain charter schools in a little box, the effort to undo choice programs, the effort to weaken academic standards, the effort to redefine alternative certification into regular certification, and so forth, I think that we mustn't assume that very many of these things that we are currently feeling good about are stable or will be left alone. There are lawsuits now against both the Ohio and Pennsylvania charter school programs, for example, because the opponents have decided to resort to the courtroom in order to undo things they couldn't undo politically.
I am just back from a couple of days in New Zealand, where after the previous government put in some reasonably promising choice, decentralization and devolutionary forms, there was a change in government, and basically this has been undone, almost at the stroke of a pen, following the change of government. I am overstating slightly both the amount of reform that they were doing and the amount of rollback there's been, but it's a pretty important bit of back-pedaling in a country that was looking pretty interesting. This can happen at our state level, municipal level, or, I suppose, at the federal level, though it's hard to think how that would get worse. It's not to be counted upon that these encouraging things we are talking about have deep roots yet.
I think Checker's right that the policy picture is not very positive at the moment and doesn't lead to optimism, but there's the underlying fact that people were taking matters into their own hands in ways that were not evident at all in 1986. For example, the biggest foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation, is expressly putting a lot of money into education, working both within and outside the system. Their intention in the long run is to put as much money into charter schools, new start-ups, new ways of training teachers, as they have into the system. That doesn't mean they're going all one way, but it is a totally different force.
A new organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, is trying to create strong national inner-city agitation for new options in schools, which didn't exist or wasn't even imaginable several years ago. Another point is that as many as a million children are being home-schooled. Not only is that taking kids out of public schools, but is also creating a whole new teaching force of people who might want to be involved with education when their kids are grown up. These things might not lead to anything. It could be that the policy situation that Checker just described will defeat it all. But in many ways, I think that the most promising thing that is happening is not policy, but just people acting on their own interests.
Checker said exactly what was on my mind, so I'll pass.
Do you want to reserve time for the future?
I just want to make a quick basic point that I think is really fundamental. In judging change, and how much change we've experienced over the last fifteen years or any period of time, you have to begin by asking "what do you expect?" In this country (and here comes a basic civics lesson that you've heard a million times) we have a separation of power systems, and it is literally built to make it really, really hard to do anything or pass anything. If you want to get something passed at the national level, it has to go through the House, a committee, a subcommittee, the floor. It is the same thing in the Senate. It has to be passed in identical form by both houses. It has to be signed by the President and not overturned by the courts, and at any point along the way, if the opponents can block just one point, they win. What that means is that if there are powerful interests that don't like what you're doing, then you lose, almost all the time. In this case, we have powerful interests that do not want the system changed, led mainly by the teachers' unions. The reason is that these reforms really do threaten to transform the system. The system is the source of everything for them, and this is a survival issue or set of issues for them. So they are fighting for their lives in a system that is stacked in their favor and was two hundred years ago. What we have going for us is that there are fifty states and fifteen thousand school districts, there's a national government, and there's a struggle going on everywhere. So, even though we lose almost all the time, we win sometimes. These things accumulate over time.
What I expect is that progress will be very slow and painful, and that it will take literally decades: thirty, forty or fifty years to bring about all these changes. But it will happen, so I'm not discouraged that after fifteen years a lot hasn't happened. That's what I expect, but we are really moving in the right direction, I think. (659)
V. Alternative Certification
Daniel Weintraub, Sacramento Bee
Checker, a couple of times you've mentioned alternative certification. With a hundred thousand airline employees laid off during the past week and more layoffs to come throughout the country, presumably, in the weeks ahead, what chance do you think there is that some of those people will end up teaching, and whether that manpower and womanpower will in any way affect the debate over alternative certification?
That's very interesting. Let me do an informal survey, counting the audience and the panel. Anybody in the room who is certified to teach in public school in any state, please raise your hand. About seven or eight. There's a lot of talent in the room that is not eligible to teach public schools in many places around the country, and the same will be true of the airline industry alumni and others who are available from a whole lot of walks of life. It's very hard to get through the usual requirements to get into a regular public school because they normally start by saying to go back to education school for a year or two. If you have the time and resources to go back to education school for a year or two, then you can get a conventional certificate and get a job in a regular public school. If you don't do that, then you are left to the tender mercies of the so-called emergency certification system or the alternative certification system, or, of course, you can get a job in a private school, or in many states in a charter school, which doesn't have to hire certified teachers. Emergency certification equals finding a warm body to a get special exemption to put that person in the classroom because there's no one else to put there. Those usually are very unstable situations where the superintendent gets away with it with that person for that year.
Alternative certification is really an interesting idea. It is in essence a fast track into public school teaching for people who didn't go to an education school. Most states have some version of it on the books, but when you look at the fine print, it gets really, really complicated and kind of deceptive. There's a lot of faux alternative certification going on where you still have to go to the same education school programs, but just get longer to do it in. You get a free ride for a year or two to be a teacher, but if you want to stay, you have to go through all the usual programs. It will be very interesting to see if any state, and this is the relevant unit here, has the gumption to fundamentally sweep away its certification structure and replace it with an essentially competency-based and marketplace-based public school teacher personnel system. Nobody has done that yet and everything is the rare exception under certain circumstances with various caveats attached to it. This remains one of the few areas of our lives where we assume that a state license based on having attended a so-called approved program, preparation is the best way to get people ready for something.
We are still dealing with exceptions. The airline situation is a fascinating opportunity to take a lot of, in many cases, well-educated people, and see if they can be brought to bear in many vacancies for teachers in a lot of places.
VI. Why the Voucher Movement Matters
Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times
To Terry. Given the political resistance that the voucher idea has faced on a variety of fronts in the last few years, whether it's the difficulty of getting a majority in Congress or the difficulty of passing what is on the ballot, and I know that earlier the sense was that they had not been funded adequately, but Michigan seemed to be a pretty even contest, or at least a competitive contest. Is there any sense of whether that should continue to have such a central role in the vision of reform or whether it makes sense to begin to stress other ideas that might be easier to move forward. Do you think that is really the keystone of the ability to transform the schools in the end?
First of all, this movement isn't organized enough centrally to have a keystone. It is basically fragmented, decentralized, and disorganized. In a way, that's been the source of its strength. There are things going on all over this country that we don't even know about, and a lot of the victories come about that way. So there isn't any one or any group that can say what the central goals of people are. They push for what they push for. Vouchers are one of those things, and I think that vouchers are absolutely essential, and the most powerful reform that we could push for. I think that what you have to expect for reasons that I just laid out is that this is going to take a long time. I think the voucher movement has made tremendous progress over the last ten years, and now we've just hit a few bumps in the road. We have to expect that the teachers' unions most of the time, at least for a couple of decades, will stop us in our tracks, but they will not. These are just bumps in the road.
While some people may be hanging back on vouchers right now, there are groups pushing tax cuts, various forms of tax cuts, private vouchers and waves of funding, these essentially private voucher programs, through tax cuts. There are people advocating charter schools and various kinds of school choice, and the accountability movement is hooked in many ways to the choice movement. This stuff is going on all over the place. I see it as all part of the same reform movement. I don't think vouchers are receding in importance at all.
One point about the two voucher defeats, which you brought up, is that those were predictable from the outset. This is the way to look at it. You may disagree, and we can talk about this. Initiative campaigns have a certain logic to them, and there's a research literature on this that no one seems to pay any attention to. What it shows is that if the issues are familiar to voters, and if they are simple, say like immigration, the death penalty or something, then most people tend to come in with standing decisions of their own. Then they are not going to be swayed by media campaigns, they know what they think. But if the issues are unfamiliar to them and pretty complicated, and many issues are that way, then a strong opponent can come in and create uncertainty. Under uncertainty, voters tend to vote "no." ("When in doubt, vote no.") And if you talk to any professionals in these initiative campaigns they immediately tell you that that is the central issue of these campaigns. The job of the opponents is not to convince people that they agree with the opponents, but to create doubt. If the issue is unfamiliar, they can always create doubt if they just spend some money.
The voucher issue will always lose in initiative campaigns. It doesn't matter how good the initiative is or how well drawn up. I think the Michigan initiative was really quite well- designed and in some sense should have won. It was ahead in the polls and everything looked fine. Once the unions started spending their money, the polls completely reversed because of the uncertainty factor. To get outside the initiative setting and start talking about legislative politics is a different ballgame. That's where vouchers have won in the past and where they will win in the future. That's the future of the movement, I think. (755)
I want to reinforce what Terry is saying, that there are times in the life of a public issue in the U. S. where polls and elections are not what matters. If you had taken a vote in 1954 about whether or not to have school integration, that vote would have lost probably in almost every state, certainly in all southern states, but it didn't stop the civil rights movement from continuing to push for school desegregation. It's also the case that if people vote that they don't want vouchers, that's not going to stop the thirty percent who do want vouchers, so this is not a movement that is going to die because it loses a referendum. It will continue and will be focused particularly where the need is greatest, and that is in the inner cities.
Ron, go ahead and then I know Paul Peterson wants to talk
Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times
What I'm wondering is, whether looking over the experience with vouchers in the last fifteen years, starting with the premise that there is always going to be opposition to an idea like this, but going beyond that, and asking what is it, from your analysis, that has been the weakest point in the voucher case? Is there any way that the idea can be reformulated to make it more palatable to a broader public? For example, someone before mentioned the idea of being privately funded, those kinds of efforts. I am wondering, sure, people are always going to spend money attacking the idea, but they have to find a point of vulnerability that they can attack. What has been in your mind, and I open this to anybody, the point of vulnerability and are there ways to think about and refashion the idea in a way that might make it more acceptable?
I don't think it's a matter of selling it to the public. The reason vouchers have gone down is because of the teachers' unions, period. The teachers' unions are extraordinarily powerful, and if there were no teachers' unions in this country--you can formulate that idea in your mind and go back twenty years--I think this country would be filled with various kinds of voucher programs. They have literally, almost single-handedly, prevented this from happening. If you look at polls on vouchers, most polls show that Americans are quite open to the idea, so this is not a public opinion problem. This is an elite-level power problem where you have a deeply-entrenched, extremely powerful special interest that is blocking change and have to be beaten.
Well, a major event is about to occur with respect to the movement. The Supreme Court will either take the case that is coming out of the appeals court that has responsibility for the Cleveland voucher program, the Sixth Circuit Court. At the appeals court level the Cleveland program was declared unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court fails to issue a writ and accept the case for deliberation, this will have a dramatic effect on the voucher movement. I cannot see the voucher movement going ahead, because subsequently the Cleveland program will be shut down and . . . . in Milwaukee the lower court decided favorably to the program and the Supreme Court denied writ, but that left intact the voucher program.
If the court leaves intact a lower court decision shutting down the voucher program, this is going to be seized upon by the dominant interests as evidence that it is clear now that vouchers are unconstitutional. We will know the answer to that question in the next month, maybe sooner. Then the question will be that then there will be deliberation during the course of the coming year, probably a decision by next June. I think that if they take the case, the chances are good that the decision will be favorable to vouchers. Then the issue will be in a new phase.
Diane made the nice point about the Brown decision, which has a pretty dramatic effect on American society. Once the Supreme Court makes a clear designation that vouchers are constitutional, should it do so, then the question is whether or not the ground shifts. Terry is right that the unions play a very important role, but the American public has doubts about the constitutionality of vouchers. It's really been ambiguous. You can point to all kinds of court decisions on one side or another. Until the Supreme Court really makes that clear, this becomes an important reason for legislatures to sort of decide "Well, let's not go ahead with this." I still think the voucher movement has been extremely important and will continue to be important if it is found to be constitutional, and driving the whole force for educational change. Because the unions' top objective in state after state is to stop a voucher bill, and they will make concessions in other domains if they can stop that voucher bill. They will accept charter schools. They will accept tax credits; in Arizona they accepted a very complicated tax credit arrangement. They will accept accountability regimes. That has come up as "Well, let's accept accountability for public schools so that we don't have to have vouchers." Vouchers have always been put out there on the table and then the union says "no" but "we will take this other thing instead." Now, you take vouchers off the table and then the unions will try to remove the charters as they are now trying to do. Where they clearly won on the voucher front, then they go after the charters, and soon as they win that battle, and then they will go after accountability. Even if vouchers never win, they are still important for the whole rest of the political game that goes on.
I have to agree with Paul's discussion of the dynamics of this except in one important place. I do not think, and I think that all journalists should be careful not to say, that denial of review by the Supreme Court means anything. It is extremely clear in constitutional law that the court can deny review for any reason. They may feel that their docket is too full, or whatever reason, it is completely up to them and has no . . . .
It shouldn't be taken as a portent all over the place.
That's right. Paul should not be saying that and that's why I am disagreeing with him. I have been in debates with people who say that there is some sort of legal standing at the national level of the Supreme Court denying review. There isn't.
But this is political fantasyland.
Obviously, all the reporters out there have already taken Paul out of context.
I think part of the import of the question was really "what are the typical objections to vouchers?" I think there are three: they are going to take money away from the public system, they are going to cause some form of racial or ability segregation, or maybe special ed kids being segregated. And the third one is how we know that the voucher schools are actually going to be doing an OK job, couldn't they just be doing something strange and weird that's attractive to parents for some reason, but that we don't think the public schools ought to be doing. I think that one of the good things about having had a number of experiments with vouchers is that the experiments haven't been very big and that some of them have not lived that long, and having had some of the experience with charter schools, is that we are learning how to build a better voucher program. I do not think that the voucher program that ultimately gets passed and is stable is going to look like the first ones. The first ones were really someone's wish and a prayer. They weren't wonderfully thought out because it was amazing that they got passed anyway. Often the financing side of the vouchers was very crude, and people had not built in any special provisions for the concerns that could not possibly arise in practice. I think that we can build a better voucher program. I am not saying that it can get passed, but I think if it did get passed that it would have a longer lifetime.
I'll call on Herb in a second. Will we ever see a voucher initiative passed in this country? We have seen some big failures about that, and the question is whether it is nomenclature, or what . . .
Don't underestimate the importance of Milwaukee. Milwaukee has survived a challenge in the Wisconsin State Legislature. The Democrats control the senate, they tried to cut the program. The Republicans still control the house and managed to keep the program intact. If Milwaukee turns out to be a genuine success, and if the African-American community begins to see that it does serve the interests of the black population in that city, it could have effects in other places. For those people who really want the voucher movement to succeed, pouring resources and efforts into sustaining the program in Milwaukee is absolutely crucial. Next to the Supreme Court decision, that is the most important thing to be working on right now.
What gets to me, though, is the way initiatives work across the country, that's a hard row to hoe.
But the problem is that you have to have real-world examples of vouchers working in order to persuade ordinary people that they should vote for this. In the past vouchers always seemed to be a good thing to do, and people said, no, it would be a bad thing. But you can't actually point to an instance where it is actually doing something. That's why it's so important to get some real examples if it's actually going to have some legs and move and actually win an initiative.
But doesn't the majority of the electorate who don't have kids say that it sounds like a risky proposition, and that they are going to play it safe and vote it down?
The critical point here is, and Terry should be making this point, is that most Americans don't have an opinion on vouchers, or really on choice. I don't know what the specific statistics are, or results he pointed to in the survey, but maybe fifteen to twenty percent are strong supporters of choice and vouchers, and fifteen to twenty percent are hard-core opponents, and most of the public just doesn't have a strong view about this, which means that it is up for grabs in any kind of a political campaign. This means that the unions are going to win. Part of the uphill battle is that to all people in the suburbs, this is a non-issue to them. They aren't interested in choice or vouchers, but are interested in class size, money, and the kind of tests that their kids have to take, but for this issue, a large part of the sort of ideologically sympathetic voters, often Republicans, don't get energized about this.
The action really comes down to what is happening in the cities, but what I see as the greatest likelihood is that when it gets to urban decision-making. If there's a strong accountability system in a state, if the city is under enormous pressure to get off a low-performing list, and there's a lot of this going on. At Edison Schools, this actually has a big influence on our business. The pressure that is being put by the state on the cities is forcing the cities' hand to do something that is not just more of the same. I could see that, under that kind of pressure, not a full-scale voucher system but a sort of escape like the Florida bill. We are going to do our best to reform our schools, BUT if they don't get kids out of the failing category, then we will let kids out. But it's that kind of isolated, targeted approach where I think vouchers are going to show up, not in anything that is more generally available.
Herb, Rick and then back out to you.
I would be one of the first to admit that it's a big leap for Americans to go to vouchers, we don't have that many precedents, but I think that one of the reasons that I very much enjoy being on this task force is that we are accumulating evidence on these things. I think with the work that Caroline Hoxby and Paul Peterson have done, which is actual evidentiary and empirical work to suggest the beneficial effects of the voucher experiments that we have had so far, and the continued accumulation of evidence, plus tremendous demands of the public. I think it was quoted earlier that 850,000, according to one estimate, of kids that are being home-schooled in the United States. There's a lot of demand for that. The surveys indicate that many parents would prefer to send their kids to private schools.
I'm also optimistic about for-profit providers and the fact that we may not have vouchers in all states, but they may be concentrated or they may be exit vouchers from failing schools. But even with what is now in place in my own experience, I serve on the board of a charter school with two thousand inner-city kids, and they are almost all minority, and almost all in poverty. We've got long long waiting lists, but even within our four campuses, we've hired a for-profit provider for two of the campuses, the Edison project, and then we have the former state superintendent in Illinois that's running two other campuses. We even have a kind of competition within our governing board and have private-operating vendors force. I think that basically there is a kind of American sentiment for choice and competition. Choice and competition is good for almost any industry. Who would want to eat in a government restaurant where somebody in Congress would decide what you are going to have for lunch?
I think there is this kind of support, but I also agree with Terry that it is going to be a long, embittered battle over many years.
I just want to take a slightly different view that picks up a bit on what John Chubb said before. The vast majority of people in this country seem to be pleased with their schools. I think it's mistaken when you compare some of the data to look at where the kids SHOULD be. The vast majority are in fact pleased with their schools. The vast majority of the population has choice in their schools now. They exercise it by choosing which school district they live in. It is in fact a minority that does not have choice, so if you think of putting a referendum on the ballot, that says: "Do you want more choice or not?" the vast majority will think that it will not affect them, but that it could really hurt their schools. Choice could have an adverse impact on schools that they have selected through residential choice. So the idea of getting a referendum on vouchers to pass is silly, and I don't think it is going to happen. The second thing that you could build on what Terry said and so forth, if vouchers are going to come in, they are going to come in in smaller scales, but it's only going to be one part of reform. I don't think we should label all reform of schools as riding or falling on statewide or large-scale voucher activities, but there are other avenues.
We'll go to Deroy, Ramesh and Cragg, and then catch up with some of you.
Deroy Murdock, Scripps Howard News Service
Thank you. A comment and a question. The comment: if we're looking for examples of voucher programs that work, I would point to the Pell Grant Program or the National Direct Student Loan Program. A Pell Grant essentially takes government money, and you could use it right in this area, such as Berkeley, which is a government-run school, or Stanford, which is a private secular institution, or the University of San Francisco, which is Jesuit campus. That seems to be perfectly OK with everyone. The students seem to study and the same people who are opposed to vouchers in K-12, members of Congress, often increase spending for Pell Grants. And I just throw it back to them. If Pell Grants are OK for kids in the university, why are they not OK for kindergartners? When I do debates and talk on radio and so on, I refer to vouchers as Pell Grants for kids, and I think that's one way for us to look at this issue.
Question, though. I am interested in the issue of students who are able to escape from failed schools versus those who remain trapped, and we have pretty good information about the academic performances for kids in charter schools versus those who remain in failed public institutions, parochial schools and so on, up through about high school when they graduate or don't graduate. But the picture seems to stop then. I wonder what data we have, or if we could get data or research on what happens to these kids when they turn twenty-five or thirty. The rest of the story is whether the kids who remain trapped in rotten schools eventually learn skills or get manual unionized jobs and recover? Do they follow lives or crime or do they ever catch up? What eventually happens after they get past high school and eventually become adults? Do you have any information on that at all?
I think actually that they do a couple of different things. Let me point out two of the most interesting things that happen to them. A lot of high school dropouts in the United States who go to failed schools are basically never employed or never employable. The number of people we have on disability and who have not worked for the last six or eight years and are young, under thirty, is really a shocking number. Disability is a new form of unemployment insurance for the unemployable. That's one group of people, and a terrible condemnation of our society because they really not employable because of their skills.
The interesting thing is that many kids do regroup and do so at a higher education level, often learning what they should have learned at the secondary education level on a Pell Grant. It's not that uncommon for someone to go to a community college using their entire Pell Grant to learn secondary school material. They manage to do fine in life. But that Pell Grant might be, if we look at past Pell Grants, $3000 a year. Many of them came from urban school districts that were spending $9,000, $10,000, $11,000 a year, so there's something weird about the fact that with $9000 a year spent on their education they weren't learning anything, but when it's $3000 that they themselves get to decide how to spend, they learn something. You draw the conclusions.
VII. Sizing Up School Districts
Ramesh Ponnuru, The National Review
A couple of the contributions, particularly of Caroline Hoxby and John Chubb's chapters, suggest in passing that urban school districts may be too large. I wonder if that is a consensus of the Task Force or if anyone has reservations about the views that the districts may be too large or should be broken up, and second, what is the advantage of having a district form of organization
as opposed to having self-sufficient, self-contained schools?
A school by itself is going to be limited in what it can accomplish. There are benefits to schools banding together to put together training systems, to purchase more efficiently, to put together programs that require sophisticated knowledge like technology programs. There are certain benefits or economies of scale and part of the proposition of Edison schools is that a large organization can benefit individual schools and let them be more than they would be if they were on their own. Large school districts, on the other hand, don't really provide much evidence in support of that proposition. The problem is that our large school systems were not put together by people who were trying to create an efficient support organization for the schools. Large school districts are creatures of the political process and they have built up bureaucracies over time that are not especially helpful to the schools.
Our experience in working with school districts around the country is that many of the smaller school districts are relatively efficient. You look at the percentage of their budget spent on overhead and it is relatively low. They are not providing a lot of support for their schools, but they are not wasting the money, either. Large school districts, on the other hand, for a host of political reasons, do have a large overhead, and it's not necessarily in bureaucrats, but in lots and lots of support personnel who are supposedly helping teachers. The efforts to reform those systems, I think are largely hopeless. Therefore, if we had to work within the current system, I think breaking up the school systems would be the way to go. But I think there are better ways to go than just breaking up the school systems, but the inefficiencies in the large systems are many times just breathtaking.
Can I throw in a word here? There are two different issues. The one that John addresses is the question of the size of the district. I live in New York City and I think the district here is hopeless. There is no way to reform a system where they don't even know how many employees they have, or how many people are working at central headquarters at any one time. The other issue is the question of school size, and I think there is a very significant body of research that suggests that school size is very important in and of itself. There is a point beyond which the schools become an incompetent place for kids, children are not known by the teachers, and where the kids have to have identity cards because the adults don't know who the kids are, and it just encourages a kind of youth culture that can be bad for kids and causes alienation. There is also a kind of youth culture in which anti-intellectualism becomes a strong shared value. Looks, money, and dress become far more important than doing well in their studies, and kids don't identify with adults, but identify with others of their age.
There's also a fairly significant body of research that shows that violence is far more predominant in very large schools, and very large schools are not just found in urban areas, it's not just New York and big cities. It's schools like Columbine. I think it has fifteen hundred or two thousand high school students. It's too big. I think that one of the benefits that's come about through charter schools as well as some of the privately-managed schools is that they are just small schools that create a more human scale where kids are known to the grownups there.
I definitely agree with what Diane just said about school size, but I don't want the idea to get around the room very far that small districts are likely to be better than big ones. We just aren't paying attention to the Toledos and Akrons and Daytons and Youngstowns and Uticas. They are just as bad but smaller. They are as dysfunctional, they have school boards that are dysfunctional, they have superintendents' offices that are as rigid, and performance levels that are as low. I think that if you are looking at a pathological school system, it can have 20,000 students like Dayton just as much as it can have 700,000 like Los Angeles. Let's not pretend that if Los Angeles were turned into a bunch of 20,000-student districts like Dayton that kids would be learning any more or schools would be working any better.
Your other point, Ramesh, is the historically interesting one, which is why we have school districts. This is a historical creation of a period in our history when everything was delivered in a kind of municipal mode when people weren't very portable and when states didn't have much to do with education, and when a town or village provided education for its own people. I think that they [districts] are a completely obsolete idea today. If we had properly functioning state level systems of education, and then properly functioning charter school-type arrangements for individual schools, including the right to purchase goods from cooperatives that could do a more efficient job of delivering chalk or special education services than any one school could get for itself in the market, we would then have a much better system than the 15,000 school districts that happen to be left over from the 1890s (actually there were a lot more of them in the 1890s).
Caroline, then Bill, then Paul.
At the beginning of the century we had about 120,000 school districts in the United States and now we're down to 15,000, so there's actually been a lot of consolidation. I think that an interesting question is "when do we know that a school district is too big?" There are three things that tell us that a school district is too big. One is that parents who want to get out, who say that they can't leave the school district without leaving their jobs. That means it's too big. Number two is that it's a political launching pad for local political careers. Your school board is supposed to be about the schools, but sometimes people try to be elected to the school board because they want to have political careers at the state level or someplace else. When they are not concerned about the schools, but are running for school office, that means the school district is too big. The third thing is that when parents feel like, when they are there to complain, they have no way to get their complaint registered in their child's classroom, that's when you know the school district is too big. It's not clear that it is some number, that it's the same number everywhere in the United States, but I think there are telling signs that a school district is too big.
I want to concur with what Caroline has said, so there would be some benefit to breaking up the Los Angeles school district because you would have people at the margin moving around into the districts that were performing better and people would be hearing about it. There would be examples made and some people would have a chance to have some things done differently. Obviously it would be better to have deconsolidation plus some other things that we would like to see such as excellent instruction textbooks, thoughtful, effective teachers, high standards and expectations, good tests, and perhaps choice programs and all these different things may figure in it. I think decentralization of some of these gigantic school districts would be a step forward.
I understand the economic point about this is that the school systems today, as everybody has observed, are creatures of politics and history. We are where we are for political reasons. It would be very interesting to run an experiment where we began just with all independent schools, charter schools or what have you. Inevitably, schools would come together and form larger units to the extent that it made sense for them from a performance standpoint and an economics standpoint. As a nation, we have never had the opportunity to know what an appropriate form of school organization is. It's just been given to us by our political history.
Paul Hill, Cragg and then Sarah
One underpinning of the current school district is so absurd that it takes close looking at. Even people in the education school at Stanford believe that there is great virtue in a school board that represents a whole city because that means we will have a centralized deliberation on important things such as how to teach math, or what textbook to use, or how to do sex education. Somehow, this is supposed to be a good thing, the idea that we will all deliberate, we will all decide what we will agree on, and then we'll mandate that to everyone, meaning that people who have a different view will be left out. They are sometimes left out in schools, trying to protect their kids against the majority when what they have decided through deliberation is not good for their children. This is an idea of an education as a civic enterprise that runs roughshod over minorities and makes it impossible to perceive that they need something different from what the majority wants. It makes it impossible for people to get it. Basically, the whole idea of politicizing all the decisions about education is probably the most anti-education idea you can ever have.
VIII. Vouchers and Political Ideology
Cragg Hines, Houston Chronicle
I don't really know how to ask this, but I'll try it this way. Am I the only person who thinks that the only problem that voucher efforts or voucher initiatives has is that considering the political- ideological arc that they come from, that some people believe that no matter how good public education might be, some people would be opposed to it because it is, in fact, government? Am I just totally off on that?
I think that one of the problems that voucher initiatives face, and it's sort of word-of- mouth, is that people fear that voucher proponents, a lot of whom come from the conservative part of the spectrum, simply don't like public education, no matter how good it happens to be.
Paul Peterson (210)
I think that that is an argument that is articulated by people who oppose vouchers. A lot of the arguments against vouchers are ad hominem arguments. This argument is used against me repeatedly. I used to say that I voted as a Democrat my entire life, and how can you make these claims? They were repeated so regularly that I decided that it was pointless to be taken aback by that. Actually, you're right. I voted for Ralph Nader last time. The point is that, yes, there is a lot more diverse support of vouchers than the rhetoric that you hear from the union leadership and people from the American right who keep saying this again and again and again.
It is true that vouchers have strong support from social conservatives who are interested in creating schools with a religious affiliation and having help in paying for the cost of sending their children to those schools. It is true that people who believe in a market economy tend to be more on the conservative wing of the spectrum. The voucher principle, which really is to use government dollars to fund public education consistent with the preferences of the family, is not necessarily a conservative idea. You can argue very persuasively that it is an egalitarian idea, more egalitarian than the system we currently have, where in order to get your preferred school, you have to buy a house in a preferred district, which really ties school choice to being able to have the capital to purchase the school that you want your child to attend.
Vouchers would greatly equalize educational opportunity as compared to this system. For that reason, it has had appeal on the left as well as on the right. We find examples back to the nineteenth century when it was John Stuart Mill who made the argument. He was confronted by the fact that there was a tremendous debate over the system of education that was evolving in Britain between the Anglicans on one side and the School Board Movement, which was the Methodists and the Low Church folks on the other side. John Stuart Mill said, "Why are we having these tremendous arguments? Just give the money to the parents and let them choose." He argued that from a very liberal position.
The liberal case for vouchers is as powerful as a conservative case, but you're quite right about the rhetoric.
Checker, Terry, Tom
Checker (Chester) Finn
This argument that it must be bad for public education as we know it is held against every single imaginable form by people who don't want it to happen. Diane earlier recalled that time about ten years ago when I was on the National Assessment governing board, and so was Herb Walberg and Jerry Hume and all sorts of other people, and we actually had the hubris to suggest that we should set standards against which these results would be reported. We are still being accused today that we set the standards so high that it would make the public schools look bad in order to bring down public education as we know it, that this was a right-wing plot to make public education look bad, and that was the reason why the standards were set where they were set. The fact is that, everything that might lead to change is turned into a right-wing plot by those who like things the way they are.
Terry Moe (257)
This very quickly. When it comes to these votes on vouchers, most people really don't know a lot about the issue and are not sophisticated enough about politics to think in terms of conservatives or what conservatives believe. Many of them don't even know what conservatism is. What it really comes down to is that Americans like the public school system. They want the best for it, and a typical American is pretty open to vouchers as well. They just don't know very much about it. What they are told during one of these campaigns is that vouchers are going to destroy the public school system, and since they don't know otherwise and are told this again and again, they are afraid that this might be true. It creates uncertainty for them about something that they really do genuinely care about. So, going into the campaign, they are very open to vouchers and vouchers are usually way ahead in polls going into the campaign. Then the polls flip because people like the public schools and are afraid of anything that will hurt them, and that's what the unions tell them by spending ten or twenty million dollars or whatever it takes, and that creates a lot of uncertainty. When in doubt, the voters vote "no." I think that's the whole story right there.
John, then we'll go to Sarah, then Doug
I'll be very brief because I think Terry has more or less said it. Public education has a huge advantage in the political process, and that is that over the years it has built up a very powerful mythology around it. To propose anything that might be construed as undermining the public education system is un-American, anti-apple pie. To be able to be attacked as an opponent of public education is a really bad thing, and the organization that wants to keep public education as it is spends a lot of money advertising to try to reinforce that theme that local public schools are a wonderful American institution, and so forth. That mythology creates a very powerful impediment to change.
Can I throw something in at this point, John? Two points. One is that the politics of vouchers and the inner cities that would stand to benefit the most from vouchers are unable to get political representation to fight for them. The second point that I wanted to make is that whenever we have this discussion of common school, a history that I have studied a great deal, I always get troubled by the implication by public school people that people who didn't go to public schools aren't quite American.
If you went to something that was not a public school, for instance, a Catholic school, you are not patriotic and somehow without the realm of democratic discourse, and there's something not quite American about you. Andrew Greeley about fifteen years ago wrote something where he did some survey research through the NORC at the University of Chicago to show that those who had graduated from Catholic schools were just as likely to vote and probably more likely to serve in the military. A disproportionate number of the firemen and policemen who had the World Trade Center collapse on them were graduates of Catholic schools, and I have to say that as an American Jew, I find myself getting very angry at the slurs that are constantly cast upon those who are graduates of Catholic schools by people that frequently feel that although the public schools have a ninety percent market share, that's not enough.
IX. Vouchers and Religion
Sarah Means, Washington Times
I think Paul hit on an interesting point about the great fear of why there is not this interest in vouchers by many, and that is the big "R," the religious aspect. Diane, I wanted to ask you a more detailed question going back to your chapter on the beginning of the public school system when you talked of the public school system being born of a push by Protestant evangelicals to make one unified school system to keep out Catholics and immigrants, and that this resulted in the disinheritance of church-related schools
It wasn't to keep them out, but to deny them any public funding, so they were forced to go into public schools or maintain their own schools.
My question to you is, now we see this movement in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland where they are trying to take back these schools, not to block religion out, but to allow for a wide breadth of religious, private, and public school choice. Will the momentum that is being built now by the school choice movement, including private religious schools, be able to be integrated into the system without erring on the side of denominationalism like what you described occurred in the 1850s on the one hand, or getting too tangled up in union lawsuits on the other. How can we get past the pendulum of these two frictions?
Diane Ravitch (326)
I think that what we are learning from these demonstrations in Milwaukee and Cleveland is that there's nothing very dangerous going on. Kids are going to school with religious sponsorship and are learning pretty much the same things as kids in public schools, that the public schools are not being damaged or undermined, and that we can have a pluralistic system. Someone said earlier, I think it was Cragg, that the analogy probably would be to higher education, where we have public, private, and religious institutions, and people choose among them. There's a kind of blurring of the lines between what's public, what's private, and there doesn't seem to be any threat either to the public schools or the non-public schools. There's a kind of live-and-let-live attitude that gives more opportunities for kids.
Diane, will they be able to get past this point like the children that are now sitting in Cleveland waiting for the Supreme Court case, of constantly worrying that they will be yanked out of the school at any point in time and being sent back to the public school that was failing?
This is going to be solved, as it was said earlier, by the Supreme Court. They can go in a variety of ways, they can remove that uncertainty or they could leave that uncertainty, but that is something that is beyond any of our knowing.
I think that people often overemphasize the religious problems created with vouchers. Right now, we have very vouchers when we have them, $1,800, $2,000. Well, if you have a voucher of $1,800, basically the only thing you can do is to take it to a school that has a religious affiliation if you live in an inner city neighborhood. If somebody is subsidizing your child's education, that is usually a religious congregation. Most of the parents who are sending their children to Catholic schools in these areas are not Catholic, so that's not their primary motivation. They just want to send their kids to a school that's safe and where kids are learning. If you had a more comprehensive voucher program where the vouchers were bigger, people would send their kids to secular schools. I am not trying to say that there's anything wrong in sending their children to religious schools, the fact is that most parents are happy to send their children to secular schools. The religious schools in the United States have been on a downward trajectory for a long time, and the only reason they started on an upward trajectory in the 1980s was purely dissatisfaction with the public schools and their performance, but I don't think it had to do with the draw of religion. If you think about Washington, D. C. where school spending is between $11,000 and $15,000 a year depending on how you count it, if you gave parents a voucher for $11,000, they would not be sending their children to inner city Catholic schools, trust me.
1. I would just interject this. I notice that Jonathan Kobol25 said on his program "Schools" a couple of weeks ago that if people were talking about a voucher a place, he'd be all for it, but I don't think he was serious.
X. Reforming the Teachers Unions
Doug Burton, Insight Magazine
I'd like to commend all of you for putting together a very persuasive book that's full of opinion. Because I'm an opinion editor, I like that. But it is especially well-documented, and my question is, and I really don't have the answer, I get the impression from all of the chapters that the unions are the villains and the teachers' unions are sort of monolithic. This is a great obstacle that you're up against. But, Mr. Evers, you pointed out in your chapter that in Texas there are four teachers' unions and the AFT allied with the business community for good competency standards, and if I remember correctly, the teachers' union in Washington State has some situation there where there is competition, the teachers' union does not agree with the national union. So what I am asking is "is there really this kind of a monolith?"and can you not find any dissenting voices who could be potential allies?
Doug, Thank goodness there are no references to the teachers' unions in my chapter!
Terry and I are mostly going to agree, but I have spoken at teachers' unions conventions where most of the audience was hostile, and then a teachers' union official would stand up and say, "Well, you know, a lot of what Mr. Evers said was right." And then they all would say, "OK."
It's a strange world out there. The unions are more decentralized than you might think. Often, the AFT, which is good for high standards and accountability for students, but not for accountability for teachers, and the NEA, which has lagged behind but is trying to catch up, saying it is also now for standards for students, but like the AFT, is not in favor of accountability for teachers. The AFT is very strong on this at the national level, but when you get to the local AFTs, they often share anti-standards prejudices that are out there, so the unions are not completely monolithic. In Massachusetts, where there has been this supposed rebellion against standards and testing, there's an AFT and an NEA there, and they responded differently. The AFT affiliate has always supported standards and accountability except for teachers, and the NEA has been against it for anybody. So you have some variety there, but in terms of vouchers, all unions are 100 percent against it.
Terry Moe (419)
I think it best not to personalize this. The best way to think about business is the way economists think about it, organizationally, as a way to make money. That's their fundamental interest and explains why they do what they do. Why don't they voluntarily reduce pollution? Because it costs money. They would lose money if they did that, so don't do that. That's why there are laws about those kinds of things. So, the way we understand why business does what it does is to understand what its core interests are.
Unions have core interests, too. They have an interest in job security and the material well-being of their members to keep them happy, and they have an interest in keeping up their own membership, and keeping their resources coming in. Those interests ensure that they will do whatever they can to keep every dollar and every kid in the public school system and that they will oppose vouchers and charter schools and other reforms that threaten this system. In this sense, which is really fundamental, they are a monolith. You will get weird little things happening around the fringes. If you focus on their core interest, you can see the real, steady, stable logic to what they do. What they are doing in politics is totally rational. They are doing what is in their self-interest and they will continue doing that.
To some extent, the AFT was pro-student-standard because their (now deceased) leader, Al Shenker, had an interest in this that he developed on his own. To some extend, the NEA came around as an alternative to having to deal with vouchers, as I mentioned in my chapter, as the environment began to change and people became more and more serious about some kind of reform, standards looked more attractive to these unions than vouchers.
If you want to cull a statement of his that Terry just expressed, you can view his essay in this journal here and you can also see a couple of union supporters explaining why you might find possibilities for support for reform within the union movement. You have to place the significance of the union in a larger context, which is to say "the union is able to raise money and engage in politics in a way that other elements of the public school system cannot. The public school boards, superintendents, the other major players, do not have access to the same financial resources and pool of campaign workers that the unions have, and the other major important fact is that the union movement has allied itself very closely with the Democratic party, and teacher unions have allied themselves with the larger labor movement. All of this did not exist thirty years ago. A big movement binds teacher organizations to associate themselves with one political party and to associate themselves with the larger labor movement. Meanwhile, the larger labor movement has gotten much weaker and increasingly on public sector unionism, so public sector unionism plays a major role in the policy commitments of one of the two major political parties. In this fragmented governmental system that we have, where bipartisan support for any kind of reform is essential to carrying it out, executing it, and implementing it over the long run, shows you why it is that the union plays such a critical role in effecting the possibility for reform at the present time.
Herb, John and Checker
Herbert Walberg (486)
I agree with your premise, Doug, and with my colleagues that the teachers' unions are the primary cause and perhaps the most powerful cause, but I don't think they are the only cause. School administrators, for example, come up through the teaching ranks. Any profession has a tendency to maintain the status quo. If you do something for twenty or thirty years, it's hard to accept new ideas. The other group that I would mention that may be an obstacle is local school boards, because they really are the group that should be representing the children's interest, to be sure that children are learning in school, and that's one reason why I think what's going to be helpful in the future is the continuation of the standards movement. When people recognize that American students aren't doing as well as they should, or California students aren't doing as well as students in other states, there is going to be more pressure on school boards to create pressure on unions, and I think we'll see more constructive reforms both in districts and also more charters and greater possibilities for vouchers.
Terry's point about how you understand unions is right on. They exist for a fundamental reason, and that's the best way to understand the positions that they take. But they find themselves in different political situations from place to place because unions are decentralized in the United States. They find themselves having to make compromises to further the fundamental interests that Terry is talking about, and those needs to compromise are when you will begin to see openings.
Take Edison schools as an example. We work in twenty-two states, fifty or so school districts, and in many of those places, we are working with unions. They have agreed to amend their collective bargaining agreements with regards to our schools to allow teachers to work longer hours, to be paid differently, to have merit pay, to allow principals to have a free hand to hire and supervise and dismiss teachers, and all kinds of things that are not in their interests. But in those situations, they have found that cooperating with us is in their best political interest. By allowing us to work in a couple of hardcore schools in one corner of the city is better than having us open a charter school and compete with them. Or they will find themselves in a minority on the board of education and have to compromise. So, as we think about where there are opportunities for reform, unions are going to try to take the positions that Terry has outlined, but they don't always have the political wherewithal to create the roadblock. So in many situations they are backpedaling. Those are instances where you are going to see opportunities for privatization, opportunities for escape-valve-type vouchers, things like that.
Paul Sperry, WorldnetDaily.com
I am just following up on the last teachers' union question. If polls show that parents, even in inner cities, want vouchers and if teachers' unions don't want vouchers, and teachers' unions are the biggest obstacles to popular reform, and if teachers' unions don't work for students and sometimes even work against their best interests, as Terry wrote in his chapter in the primer, in this world, if you agree that the success of vouchers relies on the defeat of teachers' unions, as Terry said earlier, then why isn't there a greater effort among reformers such as yourselves to undermine unions, particularly with statistical comparisons of student performance in non-union versus unionized school districts?
I have actually written such a study, getting back to an earlier point of our discussion, I am an economist in an economics department, I am not at an education school. I think I would have been fired if I had written a study on teachers' unions if I were in an education school. It is not that easy to study the effect of unions on student achievement. I'll tell you why in ten simple words. There are very few schools that are not unionized now in the United States. Most of them are located in the deep South in states like Mississippi, but if you look at a state like New York, there is not a single school that is not unionized.
If you just do a simple comparison of unionized schools versus non-unionized schools, you wind up comparing schools in New York and schools in Mississippi, and you can guess who wins. That's not a good way to study the effect of unions on student achievement. What you really have to do is an apples-to-apples comparison and look at the schools that actually changed when they changed. What I did in my study was to look at schools when they changed from nonunion to union status, then I looked to see what student achievement was like before and after. Basically, every school district in the United States that is unionized has unionized since 1968-ish, when teachers' unionism started. It looks like student achievement does fall slightly, even right at the time of unionism although school spending goes up quite a lot and teachers' salaries go up.
I think, though, that the sort of causality that you started with--if you want to have vouchers, then you have to defeat the unions and so forth--that may be true and is a very pessimistic view of what's going to happen with education reform. I think all unions do the same things for their members. They try to protect members, try to raise wages, try to save jobs. So that's not unusual. What's unusual is that in education we do not have enough competition to have a market form of discipline for the union. If you let the UAW run the auto industry, it would be the same thing. The reason that people do not say that the UAW is a monolithic, controlling force in the auto industry, is the marketplace. That's something we just don't have in education. The UAW does not ask for things that are going to drive Ford out of business. Competition is probably the solution. I don't think it's getting rid of unions. I think it's having unions that have to have their demands meet with the demands of consumers, and in this case the consumers are parents.
Can you characterize what it's like for a typical teacher who comes into the industry, and part of the power of unions is the fact that they have large memberships. The crusade, if you will, against unions, is not a crusade against teachers. But can you describe what it's like? In other words, I have the impression that if you come into the industry, everyone signs up for the union, in fact, aren't some of your benefits triggered by the union rather than the district?
In some states, you can't work unless you are a member of the union. More often you can work, but the dues will automatically be collected whether or not you are a member. So most people figure if they're going to pay their dues, they might as well vote, so they do become union members. Getting back to John's point, it's not obvious that if you're a good teacher, you're altogether in favor of unionism and altogether against vouchers. Unions do not make life easier for a very good teacher who is teaching better than her colleagues. Choice does. So, because that teacher attracts parents and is someone who is important to that school, the school cares about rewarding that person.
You see that in charter schools, the teachers who are the better teachers are more likely to be rewarded and more likely to stay in teaching for that reason. If I were a really good teacher, I would be in favor of choice, wanting rewards for myself and wanting to stay in the system.
Virtually no charter schools are unionized at this point. The only charter school I know, and it's a sad story, the only unionized charter school I know of is the one that unionized on Edison, and the school after that fell into incredible turmoil and bickering with the board, and went under. It is a sad story but that is the only case of unionization that I know of in the charter school world.
That's actually a good story, because it shows that when you have a competitive system, if management doesn't do its job vis-a-vis the union, management is going to get in trouble.
Just a quick point, and that is that the embrace between the Democratic party and the teachers' union can sometimes be pried apart in interesting ways. We had a case not long ago in California where the unions pushed for unionization of charter schools and a number of the top Democratic politicians in California, including Governor Gray Davis and Mayor Jerry Brown, resolutely opposed this. So, it's a complex situation that puts a lot of public pressure on top elected officials to show results in the schools right now.
At the same time, the unions are not dumb and they're figuring out how to buy Republicans, too. All over the midwest the decisive margin in the legislature on a whole bunch of controversial education reform issues is now held by Republicans that owe their seats to the teachers' unions.
There is tremendous truth to that.
The fact is that unions have not been studied, they really have never been studied, and the reason is that almost anybody who would normally study the teachers' unions is in an education school, and in education schools, they don't study the unions. Caroline has done a study, and I am in the middle of a big project studying teachers' unions. I think that foundations and others who are interested in promoting research that will help us understand how this education system works should encourage research on teachers' unions. There is very little out there and there is no justification for it given how important teachers' unions are to the organization and operation of schools.
XI. Where do Public School Professionals Send their Children?
George Neumayr, Investor's Business Daily
Has the Task Force done any research on where public school professionals send their own children?
There's data, sort of ephemeral data, hard to get, on this, and mostly I am not aware of any set of data that's too reliable.
Actually, Dennis Doyle did a very nice study of teachers who worked in large cities and where they sent their children to school. Something like thirty to forty percent have their own children in private schools. That's publicly available data and if you really want to follow up on that, I can get you the citation. I can remember a debate where Checker Finn was a debater and he was making the case, and on the other side was the head of a teachers' union in Cincinnati, Ohio. Checker made the case of why parents shouldn't have a choice of schools when teachers have a choice of where to work, and he responded by saying that "I want you to know that two-thirds of our teachers send their children to the public schools here in Cincinnati, two-thirds."
XII. Impact of Vouchers on Education
David Satter, Reader's Digest
In a functioning voucher system, what is the fate of the failed schools? What are the potential provisions for their future rehabilitation?
So far we haven't really seen that, and I'll tell you why. The only really big voucher program we have in the United States is the Milwaukee voucher program, and they can have up to fifteen thousand kids eligible. Milwaukee has a system where about sixty-eight thousand kids are poor enough to be eligible for these vouchers. In the schools in Milwaukee which have been most threatened by vouchers, public school performance has improved incredibly over the last three years since they've been threatened by the vouchers, so it's hard to say what we would do to reconstitute those schools. They've had bigger improvements over the last three years than they've had over the last three decades. So the question has not yet arisen about what we would do if the Milwaukee schools had not responded and improved student performance. The poorest schools in Milwaukee have had their math and science scores go up by six national percentile points a year for three years in a row, which is really incredible. They are happy about this. They don't attribute it to the threat of vouchers. So, what would we do if they didn't regroup? I think that probably the answer is that some schools should close.
I would like to pursue that point because in a marketplace we should have a celebration. If you have a restaurant that nobody comes to, that's good for our society because consumers are dominant in that sense. I think that we should look at other countries as well. In Denmark and Holland, we don't have this tremendous gulf of church and state and all those worries about it and if you have roughly thirty-five students in those countries, you can start your own school and you have to follow rules to some extent a state curriculum but you are free to provide mentoring and supplementary curricular studies as well as the type of instruction you might like, and if you attract students, you get more money from the state. If you don't, you fail and close your doors, so this should be viewed as something that's healthy rather than a disaster.
David Satter, Reader's Digest
When I was in college there was controversy about the Coleman Report, which everyone expected at the time to show that an investment in the schools would produce great results in raising the level of educational achievement, and in fact ended up showing the opposite. Do you feel that on the basis of the data that you have that there's enough there to make these claims for the voucher system? In and of itself should it be an autonomous force for raising the educational level of the kids, for example, by the percentages you have?
The only question is what you mean by an autonomous force. It doesn't act all by itself. The mechanism is that vouchers create the opportunity for people to start new schools where they can use their staff and money more effectively, not be embedded in bureaucracy, not to be distracted by rules that are sent down by the school board. All kinds of things happen that create opportunities for schools to be better, but vouchers don't do that all by themselves. One of the funny things that happens in debates about whether competitions or charter schools or the like have an effect on neighboring public schools, is that people say, "Oh no, it wasn't because of vouchers, it's just that it gives the district a better principal and better teachers down there." Well, that is the mechanism. The mechanism of competition is getting rid of the barriers to performance and putting in the factors that lead to performance, and those things work.
I just want to add a cautionary note. We don't know a whole lot about how to run voucher systems and how to do it best. This is going to be a learning process in the same way that we are trying to learn how to improve other schools. So what do you do about the school that fails from competition and so on? We don't quite know. The first tendency will be to redistribute the faculty to the existing other schools, which probably wouldn't be right, but on the other hand, if you fire everybody in a school that fails, you won't get any good teachers to go into difficult schools. There are a lot of uncertainties in any of these things, and there's no one voucher system, and we are going to have to feel our way with all of these changes. Some mistakes will be made. I don't think we know.
But I don't think we should rely on command and control.
No, this is not a general argument that says that I am basically for more competition, but there's a lot of uncertainty here. Neither the other side that's against any competition that says that the whole system is going to go to hell is not right, but on the other hand it's not going to be wonders overnight without some careful introduction and changes.
Backing up what Paul Hill just said, I've talked to many superintendents who may not say that they want vouchers, but who will say in private that they would like some competition. They know that there are some things that they would like to do, and they would like a little bit of pressure so that they could people in their district motivated so they could actually do those things. They know what's wrong a lot of the time, and they need something. Sometimes, that's why they want accountability, someone to say that "this school is not doing well." They are not dumb. They know that their school is not doing well, but they want some pressure from the outside so that they can do what's right.
We've come to the end of our time, so I need to wrap up just one announcement, and that is that for those of you who are visiting from out of town and are part of our shuttle system, a reception is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. and dinner at 7:00 p.m. I think the last shuttle will leave from the hotel at about 6:45 p.m. if you want to take in the President's remarks to the joint session of Congress, which is at 6:00 p.m., there will be a television at the dinner site, so if you want to come then we will have a television in place. The dinner is at the Stanford Barn.
Let me thank you for taking all the time to come out, and let me thank our supporters in the audience who have supported this, and in particular Tad Tovey and the Koret Foundation for the terrific underwriting that made this afternoon possible. It is a great challenge and one that we are intrigued with continually, and are dedicated to do so. Thank you.