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The Center for Public School Renewal

Parents - Free to Choose

Bomotti, Sally. "Why Do Parents Choose Alternative Schools?" Educational Leadership, October, 1996, pg. 30.

Ms. Bomotti, a university researcher at a center in Colorado, finds in a study of the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, CO, that although parents choose alternative schools for their children for the right reasons, those who chose schools represented a less-diverse subset of the population of the entire district. Parents had to provide transportation to the chosen alternative and so those parents without the means for transportation were unable to take advantage of the choices that existed. Additional concerns were found regarding the inclusivity of some alternatives, and over the uniqueness of the alternatives' programs. Such research points to the need to carefully structure and monitor choice programs so that they can operate to the benefit of all families.

Hill, Paul, with Pierce, Lawrence, and Guthrie, James. Reinventing Public Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

This RAND Corporation-sponsored study provides a highly credible critique of current public education and offers a new approach for contracting for school services that goes well beyond most current reform proposals. Charter schools (in some states) are most like what the authors' propose, but even current charters do not have the protections this book claims a contract provides. The authors also make a strong case for a thorough assessment of the quality of education that contractors provide, so that parents and the public will know what they are getting for their money. The central idea behind the book is that public school districts will retain their authority to provide education in their communities, but divest themselves of the means to do it directly. In other words, all educational services would be contracted out to a variety of providers, while a routine and comprehensive assessment of the quality of services provided will enable the district to monitor the provisions of the contract and make changes as needed. See the CPSR link Other Resources to learn more about Hill and his Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Petronio, Maureen Allenberg. "The Choices Parents Make." Educational Leadership. October, 1996, pg. 33.

A companion piece to Bomotti's (qv.), this article also underscores the need to pay attention to how and why parents make, or fail to make, choices for their children. The author studied the school choice plan for the Cambridge Massachusetts school system. The plan was developed as a way to racially balance schools. The author found

"It is easier to sort the factors that have little or no impact on parents' decisions than it is to categorize those that led parents to choose one program over another. Hard accountability data, for example, had little to do with the choices parents made. Only one couple compared school-to-school performance on standardized tests. The more educated parents were, the more likely they were to dismiss test results as a poor indicator of student or school success. Rather than quantitative data on school performance, parents wanted answers to questions: Is it a good school? Are the teachers good? Again, such research alerts us to the difficulties that an education market system must overcome in order to be effective."

Tyack, David. "School Choice, Yes--But What Kind?" The American Prospect, no. 42, January-February, 1999.

Tyack makes a good case for some reflection on the historical underpinnings of school choice. He says,

"The current debate about school choice has raised the most basic questions about the structure of education since the nineteenth century. But the debate has been relentlessly ahistorical, as if amnesia were a virtue. Many of us seem to have forgotten why America established public schools in the first place, the means we established to make choices about education, and what we have learned not only about the advantages but also about the limitations of choice. When conservatives today speak of "choice," they have in mind choice of schools by individual parents. But choice may take a variety of forms. Communities make collective choices about education by electing school boards that set educational policy, and by voting school budgets and bonds up or down. Religious congregations may choose to create sectarian schools for their children. Students make individual choices about their education by choosing among the electives offered at their high school. One form of choice may come at the expense of another; under a parental voucher system, the non-parents in the community would be effectively stripped of their capacity to make democratic choices about the schools they pay for."

Wells, Amy Stuart, et. al. "Charter Schools as Postmodern Paradox: Rethinking Social Stratification in an Age of Deregulated School Choice." Harvard Educational Review. Summer, 1999.

This essay, based on the findings from a study of California charter schools, examines the complexities of studying forms of schooling that both represent and promote social transformation from the modern to the post-modern world. The authors are justifiably skeptical that disadvantaged groups will benefit much from the governance change that charter schools provide. However, they recognize that people who are disempowered in the current system may find forms of school choice like charter schools to be a reasonable alternative in specific situations. The essay is also useful for its identification of six types of charter schools, including teacher-led charters.

Citizens - Free to Know

________, Closing the Achievement Gaps: Using Data to Drive Action; Closing the Achievement Gaps: Collecting and Analyzing Your School's Data. Parent Leadership Associates, 2003. (www.plassociates.org)

Although not targeted specifically at citizens at large, this series of handbooks provide worthwhile suggestions as to how interested citizens and parents in local communities can gather the data they need to improve schools. The first volume discusses the negative reactions such an effort will produce among teachers and administrators. While it is surely true that such "blowback" will occur, we feel such a reaction would be substantially reduced if teachers felt they had freedom to teach (as outlined elsewhere in this website) that was comparable to the public's freedom to know. In fact, the negative reaction that public school people have to both citizens' freedom to know and parents' freedom to choose stems from the lack of freedom enjoyed by most public school workers.

________, School Evaluation Services. Standard and Poors, Ongoing. (www.ses.standardandpoors.com)

S&P has contracts with Michigan and Pennsylvania to develop extensive systems of data collection and analysis so that citizens in those states can learn more about what goes on in the schools they support with their taxes. S&P data includes financial information about revenue sources and spending, as well as standardized test data, graduation and dropout rates, pupil- teacher ratios, and various kinds of demographic information (% of low income homes, % of limited English proficient students, community median income, % adults with a high school diploma, etc.). This data is sliced and diced in several ways to suit different types of readers (parents, taxpayers, researchers, school officials, etc.). While S&P is definitely on the right track in supporting citizens' freedom to know, it is going to take some time to develop and refine the data so that it becomes widely and easily useful. In part, this has to do with S&P's own efforts to develop and present their data, which only started in 2000. But another important part of the picture has to do with what data schools and districts are willing to make available, and what the state is willing to require of them. So long as school people feel they are getting the short end of the stick in the "data game," they will continue to be uncooperative. And, as long as school people do not feel free to pursue their work in a professional manner, citizens' freedom to know what is going on in schools will not produce the desired improvements.

Finn, Chester, Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. "Accountability Via Transparency." Education Week, 4/26/2000.

These charter school supporters propose an approach to school accountability

"... where so much is visible in each school that its watchers and constituents (including families, staff, board members, sponsor, the press, rival schools, and others) routinely ‘regulate' it through market-style mechanisms, rather than command-and-control structures. If flaky people are operating a school with a weird curriculum, or money is squandered or test scores are sagging, this is no secret. Either the school shapes up or it finds itself without students (or its charter renewal). Conversely, a school that works well will find people beating a path to its doors. Such an approach to accountability should also guide the relationship between charters and their sponsors and should inform the statewide charter program."

The authors assert that charter schools "in particular and public education in general would benefit from something akin to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP, by which private-sector firms (and many nonprofit organizations) report their fiscal activities and results using standardized taxonomies and independent audits embodying uniform definitions and common categories. We'd call these "Generally Accepted Accountability Principles for Education," or GAAPE, borrowing the virtues of the accounting field while recognizing differences between schools and private firms and going beyond financial matters. And as in arms control, the credo of such an accountability system is "trust, but verify"--that is, trust must be backed by hard evidence and reliable information."

Finn and his co-authors propose three levels to GAAPE. Level I: The school routinely and systematically discloses complete, accurate, and timely information about its program, performance, organization, and finances. This level encompasses educational achievement, fiscal soundness, organizational viability, and compliance with the law. Level II: Charter sponsors routinely disclose complete information about their criteria and procedures for school approval, monitoring, intervention, and renewal, and supply comparable information about each school for which they are responsible. This level includes charter approvals, monitoring schools, and the charter renewal process. Level III: The state routinely discloses complete and accurate information about its overall charter program, and obtains regular audits and evaluations of that program. This level involves program data, audits, and evaluations.

From the CPSR point of view, the "accountability via transparency" proposal has considerable merit, especially because of its emphasis on openness of information. In the spring of 2000, for example, Michigan newspapers had to use the Freedom of Information Act to get data from charter schools. Nor are regular public schools all that forthcoming with information about certain sensitive topics. No one likes to have their dirty laundry aired, but public education organizations taking public money and holding the public's trust will have to learn to live with some system such as the authors propose. It's the only way to reduce the use of accountability by compliance, which is often ineffective.

Finn, Chester. "Can State Standards and Market-Based Reforms Be Reconciled?"

 The Education Gadfly, 4/25/2002.

"Checker" Finn continues to have (along with Paul Hill) the soundest view on accountability among all school choice proponents. The value of this article lies in his connection between (in our terms) two of the three freedoms central to good schools–the parent's freedom to choose and the public's freedom to know. He says,

"To my eye, though, the greatest source of interdependence between standards-based and market-style accountability is that each offers a promising solution to a big problem besetting the other. We have ample evidence that standards-based systems are better at identifying failing schools than at fixing them. ... Unfortunately, bad schools are extremely hard to transform into good ones, particularly when the main agents of their transformation are lumbering government bureaucracies.... What's happened is that a pure standards based accountability system has succeeded in revealing shortcomings that it is incapable of fixing. What to do? Bring market forces to bear. Move the children to more effective schools, or turn them loose to move themselves. ... The converse is also true. Market-style reform benefits from standards and tests. That's because the education market, in and of itself, is often flawed. Private schools, for example, are often coy about their actual academic results because they prefer to rely on their reputations to market themselves to customers. ... Without a transparent marketplace based on uniform standards and replete with comparable and readily accessible achievement data, one must trust every school to tell the truth. Thus we could have a situation where schools are formally answerable to the marketplace yet their consumers are unable to make informed choices among them. That leads in time to market failure. ... The solutions seems obvious: create a regimen of uniform academic standards for core subjects, uniform (or comparable) assessments, and a transparent, publicly accessible reporting system, whereby every school and other provider of instruction can be carefully scrutinized by quality-minded shoppers in the education marketplace. ... So let's do both. If we're serious about school improvement and accountability, let's go for the combination of standards-based reform and market-style reform. Not only can they coexist. They need each other."

Mr. Finn is exactly right about the interdependence of transparent accountability and parents' ability to choose. However, transparent accountability not only benefits parents who want to choose a school–it grants the freedom to know what schools are doing to everyone. In particular, it benefits the general public (the third major player in schools, after parents and teachers), which wants to know how well spent are its tax dollars. At CPSR, we look forward to the day when an understanding of the importance and interdependence of the freedom to know and to choose is joined by an understanding of the importance of the freedom to teach, and a realization of its interdependence with the other two.

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