The Center for Public School Renewal
Parents - Free to Choose
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.
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.
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
Tyack makes a good case for some reflection on the historical underpinnings of school choice. He says,
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.
These charter school supporters propose an approach to school accountability
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.
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 schoolsthe parent's freedom to choose and the public's freedom to know. He says,
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 schoolit 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.