By: David Mehl and the Board of the College Republicans  | 

The YU Republicans, Proudly Pro-(School) Choice

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

You have just been chosen to be superintendent of California’s public schools. (Your lack of qualifications is not an issue in an age in which Dr. Ben Carson is eligible to be Secretary of HUD.)

You will oversee some 275,000 tenured teachers. Some of them are great; others merely average. A few are terrible – an independent study suggests that between 1 and 3 percent of them (2,750 to 8,250) are ‘grossly ineffective,’ a step below the thousands who are rated merely ‘highly ineffective.’

Here’s the question: If the system which you are to oversee is run efficiently, how many of the 275,000 teachers will be fired during a typical year for not being good enough teachers? There’s no need to come up with an exact number – a rough estimate or a range will work equally well.

Well, if the number you came up was higher than three – not three hundred or three thousand, just three – then you’ve already exceeded the number of bad teachers the state actually did fire in a typical year.

It may sound incredible, but from 2001 to 2011, the state of California removed just 22 tenured teachers for poor performance in the classroom – an average of 2.2 per year.

This appalling statistic – and the many similar ones in districts across the country – is important not only because of the obvious harm caused to children who are fated to endure the worst teachers. It also stands as an indicator of just how difficult public school reform has been.

Since the education reform movement came to life in the 1980s, a wide range of policy solutions have been proposed for America’s public education woes: more funding and more teachers, better curricula and better facilities, increased accountability, longer school days, merit-based pay – the list goes on and on.  Yet despite the surfeit of creative ideas and a near-quadrupling of education spending, public schooling has not only failed to appreciably improve – by many measures, it has gotten even worse.

The best explanation for this disheartening situation is the series of perverse incentives for the people who set and implement public education policy. For politicians, the best reforms are the flashy new programs that can be heralded at a packed press conference – or even better, a ribbon-cutting ceremony. For the outside contractors often brought in to implement new policies, the best programs are those that ensure them a steady stream of income from the school system. For the immensely powerful teachers’ unions – the two largest ones combined for more political spending than any other organization in every election cycle since 2008 – the objective is to defend the status quo at nearly any cost to fend off against even the most remote threat to lifetime employment laws or benefits.

The results have been dismal. In New York City, for example, teachers’ unions have tenaciously protected a system where more than two-thirds of primary school students are not proficient in reading or math, grade inflation is rampant, merit-based teacher pay is illegal, bad teachers are rarely fired, and the few teachers who have been removed from the classroom are often paid by the city to do nothing every day (even though the city announced with great fanfare the closure of such “rubber rooms” in 2010). All this persists despite years of attempted reform under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and more than twenty thousand dollars spent per student per year.

With a system as broken as this, it may be time to turn from focusing on reforming from within to expanding the availability of alternatives for parents and children. One such alternative, public charter schools, solve the problem of perverse incentives by placing responsibility for school performance and the authority to run the school in the same place, and linking school funding to school performance. This is the ‘charter’ – the contract which grants school administrators the authority to run a school and the funding necessary to do so, which will be revoked if the school does not meet certain standards. The schools are less subject than their traditional counterparts to the whims of local politicians, and are in most cases free of the teachers’ unions’ death grip.

Today, more than 2.6 million students attend charter schools (with a million more on charter school waiting lists), and parents of charter school express greater satisfaction with their child’s education than do parents of public school students. While charters as a whole only slightly outperform traditional public schools, they do so despite receiving on average 30% less funding per student than traditional public schools. More reform and accountability is needed on this front, but charters remain one of the few bright spots in the otherwise dismal landscape of public education.

Education vouchers are another promising way to expand school choice. In this system, parents have the option of using some of the money which would have been spent on their child’s public education to instead enroll him or her in a private or religious school. Such programs are often targeted to low-income families or students at the worst schools, and because each voucher amounts to less money than is spent per student at the public school level, can lead to increased per-student funding for public schools. These programs allow lower income students the same range of school options as many of their wealthier peers, and their level of education improves as a result.

The issue of education reform is one in which the incoming Trump administration looks particularly promising. The president-elect’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a longtime fighter for school choice who has led fights on behalf of charter schools and school vouchers several times before. If Mr. Trump keeps his promise to direct 20 billion dollars toward school choice programs, his administration might one day be remembered for making available to all Americans, regardless of income level, the ability to choose which school to attend.

On paper, promoting school choice seems to be one agenda around which a desperately divided America can coalesce: more Democrats support charter schools, education tax credits, and universal vouchers than oppose them. The influence of the teachers’ unions, however, has caused many Democratic leaders to place themselves in opposition to the party rank-and-file, so it may be an uphill battle. Yet whatever the political challenges, giving every child – regardless of income or location – the chance to attend a good school is a goal well worth any effort, and one might even say that it could make American education great again.