The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Teachers Can Also Benefit From School Choice" by The Detroit News, November 11, 2003.

Original Title:
Teachers' Choices
by Barry McGhan

The recent dustup over charter school expansion in Detroit and elsewhere left all involved a little soiled. Of particular concern is the part teachers played, because their role is so central to the education of children.

Charters became legal in Michigan in the early years of the Engler administration, when teachers often felt treated as the enemy. Ten years later, there's still little in the law for teachers to like. It allows outsiders to come into a community and draw students – and the state money that goes with them – away from public school districts. This loss of students and funding threatens teachers' livelihood. Even if new jobs are created by the growth of charters, they might not pay as well, or have such good fringe benefits as teachers' current positions. Other threats to job security arise – for example, charters generally lack the protection of tenure and union contracts. Plus, like most of us, teachers don't look forward to change in their work routine, especially negative ones.

At the same time, change seems to be a constant in our lives. Are changes toward more choice in education inevitable? Can this change be managed in a way least harmful to both parents and teachers? The answer to both questions is yes.

Although charter schools are a specific form of school choice – one that still has to prove itself, judging by recent negative reports (Detroit News, 10/26/03) – choice in general has had an important and growing role in public education for nearly a century. For example, the one-size-fits-all high school of 1900 gave way to the development of vocational schools around the time of World War I. That expansion of choice was followed by the development in the 1920s and 30s of the multi-program "comprehensive" high school, and specialized high schools in large cities, like Detroit's Cass Tech. Then, in the 60s and 70s, the twin developments of magnet and alternative schools again expanded the choices offered to students, parents, and teachers. All of these forms of choice are still around.

In the last 15 years, charter schools, inter-district choice, and voucher programs have been added to the mix, and even home-schooling has continued to grow. The reason school choice is a growth phenomenon is that it is closely connected to a desire to maximize our freedoms. "Choice" really is short for "freedom of choice." Except for freedom from fear and from want, this freedom is as fundamental as any we can imagine. School choice is not, as some public education proponents believe, just a right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education. Choice in public education is popular – and here to stay.

What school choice promises parents is a better education for their children than they can get without it. Certainly middle class parents with the means to move to the district of their choice believe in it. Recent additions to the school choice menu – e.g., charters and vouchers – are mostly directed at helping poor families exercise choice like middle class parents have been able to.

Public school teachers should look for ways for their schools to become more choice-friendly – instead of continuing to defend an indefensible status quo by trying to slow or divert the school choice "tide." One way to do this is to argue, as management specialist William Ouchi does in Making Schools Work (Simon & Schuster, 2003), that the centralized, bureaucratic way that schools are typically managed prevents teachers from acting in the best interests of their students. This view, supported by modern management theory, says that organizations don't fail because their employees are incompetent, but because their management systems are dysfunctional.

Ouchi's solution leads to district de-centralization with teeth in it, where more than 90% of a school's per-pupil allowance funds a school-level budget managed by the school's principal and teachers – who know their students' needs best – rather than by out-of-touch central office bureaucrats. This "send the money to the schools" approach will allow individual schools to tailor their program to the specific needs of their students, and lead to a variety of choices available to parents. A model for this approach has been in successful operation in Edmonton, Canada for many years. A few districts in the U.S. have adopted the Edmonton approach, but progress has been slow because of resistance from the entrenched bureaucracy.

Hopefully, public school teachers will eventually come to see their self-interests as supported by the trend toward freedom of choice in education. If they do, they can then start placing demands on citizens, politicians and union leaders to facilitate a teacher-friendly transition toward greater school choice for families.

Ultimately, teachers' choices are simple – lead, follow, or get out of the way of school choice.


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