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Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2001 Brookings Institution Press
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Chapter OneIntroduction: A New Direction in Public Education?
The twenty-first century mark may define when American education veered off in a new direction. For more than a hundred years, the education trail seemed to lead irreversibly toward a standardized, centralized system controlled by larger and more powerful entities. But just as dot.coms may be enhancing the power of small entrepreneurs and savvy consumers, so may similar forces be gaining new life in education. If charter schools or school vouchers should become prevalent, public education would change dramatically, becoming more varied, decentralized, and locally controlled.
Because the potential for change is large, the public debate is intense. Policy experts, interest groups, and political leaders alike have formed strong opinions on one side or another. For those who favor charters and vouchers, the new direction holds great promise. In their view, teachers will be more effective, parents more engaged, students increasingly challenged, and minority learning problems better addressed. Opponents are no less certain. If they are right, schools will become more stratified, and students will be placed in old-fashioned educational straitjackets. Teachers will suffer salary cuts and a loss of control over their professional lives,and the common educational culture will fragment-all in violation of constitutional principles and with no positive benefits for students.
This book contains the essays first presented at a Program on Education Policy and Governance conference held at Harvard University in March 2000. The reader will discover that both the wildest hopes and darkest fears of the political protagonists are seriously overstated. Yet the initiatives do carry the potential for reversing the direction in which public education in America has long been heading.
Trends in Public Education
Throughout the twentieth century, the design of the American school system became increasingly comprehensive, uniform, centralized, and professionally directed. Raw statistics reveal how powerfully all these forces have played out. In 1900, 72 percent of all children ages five to seventeen were enrolled in public school; by 2000, the percentage had increased to 92 percent. More telling, perhaps, the average number of days attended by those enrolled nearly doubled from 86 days in 1900 to 161 days in 1980. The number of students graduating from high school increased from 62,000 students in 1900 to 2,341,000 students in 1997.
Financial commitments to education increased more dramatically, even when the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Between 1920 and 1996, expenditures per pupil climbed from $535 to $6,400. Teacher salaries rose from less than $7,300 to more than $40,500. Over the seventy-year period, the number of teachers increased at nearly twice the rate as the number of pupils in average daily attendance. Between 1955 and 1998, the pupil-teacher ratio tumbled from 27:1 to 17:1.
The trend toward professional control over the educational system has been no less impressive. In the 1920s, the mother of one of this book's editors taught public school in rural Minnesota, even though she had received only one year of "normal school" beyond her high school diploma. In that time and place, her training was more or less the norm. Subsequently, lengthy training programs sprouted in most state colleges and universities, and today virtually all teachers have a bachelor's degree, with 48 percent in possession of a master's or other advanced degree. Nor is professional training limited to classroom teachers. Curriculum specialists, guidance counselors, psychologists, school librarians, special educators, and a host of other specialties have come into being. Principals are now expected to have advanced training in management and leadership. And professionally trained superintendents, doctoral degree in hand, have assumed the helm in most school districts of any size.
Centralizing trends are no less pronounced. Americans moved from small towns to metropolitan areas served by school districts that steadily grew in size and importance. Small, rural school districts gave way to consolidated ones. Nearly 120,000 school districts served the nation's schoolchildren in 1937; by 1998, the number was less than 15,000. The trend to larger districts continued through the 1990s. In 1989, 650 school districts had a pupil enrollment in excess of 10,000 students; a decade later, the number of such districts exceeded 800. School finance was also being centralized. State and federal dollars augmented local ones such that the local share dropped from 82 percent in 1920 to just 45 percent in 1997.
Larger, better-funded, more centralized school systems were more easily organized by school employees, and, beginning in the 1960s, teacher organizations gained the right to bargain collectively with local school boards. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), affiliated with the larger labor union movement, shut down numerous big-city schools until they secured collective bargaining rights. As AFT membership rolls quickly expanded, the National Education Association (NEA), for years dominated by administrators, dropped their anti-strike, anti-union philosophy and became a strong force for teacher rights and prerogatives. In the end, most of the larger school districts signed collective bargaining agreements with one or another of the two organizations. By the end of the twentieth century, the two organizations had grown so similar that they merged some of their functions, and leaders proposed an outright merger of the two organizations. Curiously, union success has had only limited impact on teacher compensation, which has just kept pace with pay in other sectors of the economy. The more important achievements have been a standardized pay scale, grievance procedures that protect worker prerogatives, and contracts that limit board and administrative discretion.
Other regulations handed down by both legislators and courts have further limited local boards. Many new requirements have had the salutary objective of increasing educational opportunity for disadvantaged groups. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed de jure segregation, and for the next several decades schools purchased buses and struggled in other ways to comply with the law. Beginning in the 1970s, many state courts also asked legislatures to ensure that per pupil funding among school districts be more or less equal. In 1974 a new federal law reinforced court orders demanding that school doors be opened to the disabled. Shortly thereafter, a combination of legislative and court action created new programs for those who spoke little English.
Not all the new regulations focused on equal opportunity questions, however. State legislatures gave schools new tasks, asking them to teach students to drive, guard their health, practice safe sex, and learn how to provide public service. Courts said schools could not ask students to salute the flag, pray in school, or be subject to a dress code that infringed on their beliefs. All in all, schools in America were fundamentally altered in the twentieth century.
Only a few initially voiced objections to these trends. Some school board members complained that they were being frozen out of the decisionmaking process by a combination of state legislation, court rules, union contracts, and professional jargon. Farmers lamented the loss of the little red schoolhouse. Segregationists worried about the consequences of racial mixing. Back-to-basics educators decried the new curricula. Others objected to uniform instruction of heterogeneous populations. Religious denominations desperately tried to find ways to keep their schools financially viable. Conservatives objected to increasing federal regulation of local schools. Free-market economists said competition was as much needed in education as anywhere else.
Until the 1980s, these groups operated mainly on the fringe-odd clusters of intellectuals and malcontents who counted for little more to the dominant forces in education than hobbits to the "Lord of the Rings." But as the century drew to a close, these whispers of opposition found a clearer voice. For all the centralization, standardization, and professionalization that had occurred, schools seemed no more adequate to the task before them. Despite rising expenditures and falling class sizes, student performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, failed to improve. American students fell further behind their peers in other countries with each passing year. In fourth grade, American students ranked at the very top in math and science, but by eighth grade, they were only in the middle of the pack, and by the twelfth grade, they ranked near the bottom. A federal task force was moved in 1982 to declare that American schools were suffering from a "rising tide of mediocrity."
Nor were schools becoming more egalitarian. Despite the disruption caused by school busing and other integration strategies, schools remained as segregated at the close of the century as they had been in 1972. Despite bilingual instruction, Hispanic scores remained well below those achieved by Anglos. The percentages of students said to be in special education programs increased from 8.3 percent of all those under the age of twenty-one in 1976 to 12.8 percent in 1997. Though the black-white test-score gap closed during the 1970s and 1980s, it began opening up again in the 1990s.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, most Americans seemed to agree that something needed to be done to improve America's schools. In a poll taken just before the 2000 presidential election, for example, more people named education than any other issue as the most important factor influencing their vote. However, it is less clear whether a consensus can be reached on how education reform should be brought about. The public split on the alternatives offered by candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush. When read descriptions of the contrasting proposals, 45 percent of registered voters supported the Gore plan, and 43 percent the Bush plan (statistically, a tie).
The range of suggestions for improving American education is highly diverse. Some have called for smaller classes, higher teacher salaries, and more expenditure. Others have called for tighter governmental control, focusing especially on testing devices that hold schools more strictly accountable for student performance. But others have called for more flexibility, competition, and parental choice.
This last idea is to be explored in this volume. Charter schools and school vouchers are of particular interest in that they carry the potential for reversing long-standing trends in American education. But they raise many questions. What promise do they hold? What problems do they pose? What can be learned from the few experiments already in place? Who takes advantage of choice when the opportunity is offered? Does a choice benefit students? What impact does choice have on traditional public schools? What are the impacts on civic education? Are charters and vouchers just another of the numerous reform movements in American education that will have their fifteen minutes but in the end leave no lasting impact? Or will charters and vouchers reshape American education in the twenty-first century as decisively as centralization and professionalization defined its shape in the twentieth? If charters and vouchers continue to spread, are these new phenomena to be welcomed or resisted? Or are the consequences of school choice so complex that the outcomes will defy the simplistic assessments that so far have marked political debates over this issue?
To these and other questions, this volume provides some preliminary answers.
Charter schools evolved out of the magnet school idea, originally developed in the 1960s as a way of increasing racial integration of urban schools. Magnet schools were expected to entice families from all racial groups to choose voluntarily integrated schools by offering in them distinctive, improved education programs. When the federal government established the magnet schools assistance program in 1984, the idea began to have a national impact. "Between 1984 and 1994, 138 districts nationwide received a total of $955 million" in federal funds to implement this form of school choice. As a consequence, the number of schools with magnet programs doubled between 1982 and 1991, while the number of students tripled. Nationwide, in the early 1990s, more than 1.2 million students attend 2,400 magnet schools in more than 200 school districts.
The goals to be achieved by choice soon broadened out beyond racial integration. School choice experiments as part of broader school reform first began to appear in East Harlem, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. When test-score gains were reported for East Harlem, the potential for improving low-income inner-city education became apparent.
The charter school idea was initially tried out in Minnesota in 1992. Just eight years later, some thirty-four states and the District of Columbia had enacted charter school legislation, and more than 2,000 charter schools were educating over some half million students. Although the percentage of students in charter schools nationwide is still a small fraction of all students, in some states charter schools are providing the school of choice for a significant fraction of the student population. For example, in 1997, 4.4 percent of the students in Arizona were attending charter schools.
Charter schools are those schools granted a charter by a state agency giving them the right to receive state funds in exchange for commitments contained in the charter. They may have their charter withdrawn if they fail to meet their obligations under the charter. The schools admit students regardless of their residence, a rule that distinguishes them from traditional public schools, which are governed by boards that have the responsibility for the education of students living within a particular school district. Also, charter schools are either nonprofit or profit-making corporations, not governmental entities in the manner of a school board. However, charter schools usually receive most of their operating revenue from state and local governments.
The legal framework within which charter schools operate varies from state to state. Some states allow charter schools only if the local school board grants its permission; others can contract freely with a university or some other state agency. Some states place heavy restrictions on admission policies; others are permissive. Some states have developed oversight mechanisms expected to hold charter schools accountable; other states allow charter schools wide latitude, with parents and students deciding whether or not the school is offering a quality education. Some states allow only one school per charter; others permit many. Most states provide charter schools the same amount of money per pupil that traditional public schools in the jurisdiction receive, and some provide additional monies to cover start-up costs. Other states are less generous. Many charter schools compete with traditional public schools for their students, but some charters take only those students who have dropped out or have been counseled out of public schools. Although a goodly number of charter schools serve a higher-income clientele, many serve disadvantaged and special needs populations.
When questioned by pollsters, Americans say they support the idea of charter schools. In a nationwide survey, 70 percent of respondents said that they favored a charter school program that "frees some public schools from certain state regulations and lets them work independently from the local school district." As a further indication that charter schools are broadly supported, both major party presidential candidates endorsed them during the 2000 campaign. Perhaps because public support seems broad, the constitutionality of charters has not been seriously challenged in court litigation. Despite these indications of general support, the charter school concept is only slowly being translated into practice. Most states have hedged their charter initiatives so as to limit both the numbers and the autonomy of charter schools. And in Washington State, a charter initiative failed to win voter acceptance in the 2000 election, though the proposal did muster 48 percent of the votes cast.
Excerpted from Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education Copyright © 2001 by Brookings Institution Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.