Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Competition and Innovation in Education

Last week we commented on John Stossel's 20/20 piece on school choice. One of the points in Stossel's commentary was that innovation is essential to creating an academic environment that can foster learning and truly change students' lives. He notes that "You don't get innovation without competition."

Unfortunately, there are many who will continue to stand in the way of change and in the way of competition. Over at Americans for Prosperity's blog, we get this post from the Wall Street Journal pointing out how hard those forces will work to stop efforts to give students greater opportunities...

Teachers unions keep telling us they care deeply, profoundly, about poor children. But what they do, as opposed to what they say, is behave like the Borg, those destructive aliens in the Star Trek TV series who keep coming and coming until everyone is "assimilated."

We saw it in Florida this month when the state supreme court struck down a six-year-old voucher program after a union-led lawsuit. And now we're witnessing it in Milwaukee, where the nation's largest school choice program is under assault because Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle refuses to lift the cap on the number of students who can participate.

...Mr. Doyle, a union-financed Democrat, has vetoed three attempts to loosen the state law that limits enrollment in the program to 15% of Milwaukee's public school enrollment. This cap, put in place in 1995 as part of a compromise with anti-choice lawmakers backed by the unions, wasn't an issue when only a handful of schools were participating. But the program has grown steadily to include 127 schools and more than 14,000 students today. Wisconsin officials expect the voucher program to exceed the 15% threshold next year, which means Mr. Doyle's schoolhouse-door act is about to have real consequences.

There's no question the program has been a boon to the city's underprivileged. A 2004 study of high school graduation rates by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that students using vouchers to attend Milwaukee's private schools had a graduation rate of 64%, versus 36% for their public school counterparts. Harvard's Caroline Hoxby has shown that Milwaukee public schools have raised their standards in the wake of voucher competition.



  • yep, i agree hand all of our tax dollars to private schools and all of our problems will be solved, seems to basic!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/24/2006 12:41 PM  

  • Again anon, if you want to contribute constructively, please do so. This is a forum for constructive dialogue, and we do not need comments that do not actually foster discussion about the issues.

    Nowhere was it suggested that all of our tax dollars should go to private schools. The argument being made is that the system as it is currently structured is not necessarily serving the best interest of all students, and the unions are not arguing for what is in the best interest of students.

    The argument is that we need innovation in government, and specifically in the area of eduacation. Innovation requires thinking outside the box and trying new ideas to provide opportunities.

    By Anonymous whitney, at 1/24/2006 1:06 PM  

  • We already have a long-running model of what happens to schools in a "school choice" environment: higher education. Across Virginia, and across the country, we have a mix of public and private providers. The quality and levels of outcomes at each takes place on a scale between zero and something less than infinity. In other words, it is a big range.

    By and large, what separates the top institutions boils down to the quality and types of students they accept. There is no open admission institution that is ranked anywhere nearly as highly as Harvard or even UVa. Nor is that likely to change.

    This has always been my fear with school choice vouchers for K12 - public schools must accept everybody, regardless of disability, wealth, or even citizenship. Private schools get to be selective. How do we ensure that everybody gets fair access to a quality school?

    Certainly one can look at third-party accreditation and approvals to operate like we do in higher education, but relatively few legislators or governors have any real understanding or trust in those methods. And as a higher ed professional, I do not trust those methods blindly.

    And let's be clear, is anybody really happy with the cost of higher education these days? Not many.

    In any event, I'm not saying it won't or can't work, or that we shouldn't try. What I am saying is we would need protections so that everyone gets the core of what is behind a "free and appropriate public (-ly supported?) education."

    By Anonymous Terry M., at 1/24/2006 1:19 PM  

  • If some degree of competition were to be introduced into public education, there is no reason why private schools servicing disabled or special needs children might not be created. Public schools probably spend more per pupil in those categories so, with enough scale, private schools could probably compete.

    If we don't allow competition where the volume is, we'll definitely never get it for any subset.

    By Blogger Will Vehrs, at 1/24/2006 2:00 PM  

  • Terry,
    You raise a very good question in asking, how do we ensure that everybody gets fair access to a quality school?

    My argument would be that the current system, where there is a public education monopoly, is not allowing for everyone to have access to a quality education.

    I think that we have to look beyond the argument of simply providing quality schools. Many public schools in Virginia are very good. But not every schools is going to be right for every student. By restricting students to only the school to which they are assigned, you do not allow the parents and students the opportunity to access the quality education they deserve.

    As with your higher ed argument, not every school is a Harvard or a UVA, but not every student is looking for that in a school. Some students need a small liberal arts school, others may seek a school that specializes in their field of study, others may want a school close to home or family.

    Our current K-12 model tries to create a one-size fits all program, and that will not always meet the needs of every student.

    By Anonymous whitney, at 1/24/2006 2:08 PM  

  • Will and Whitney, as long as we have some protections in place, I am all for it. I have been around k12 teachers and higher ed faculty and administration far too long to believe that the way we are going is the only way, let alone the right way.

    To change topic somewhat, I do think there are some fundamental issues that have been created in Virginia and elsewhere that have lead to the erosion of effective public education. Some of these are outside the fault of education, some are not.

    The expense of transporting children could be be reduced if children were actually allowed to walk to school again if they lived within mile or mile and a half of the school. Not in Virginia, it used to be true though. But not only is manadatory transportation in the law, there are no sidewalks to speak of. I'm not sure which change came first, but there is almost no chance to go back. This also affects persoanly fitness - children get less exercise. They may be safer, but I know what goes on inside buses and how jammed into seats kids are, so I am not sure how much safer they really are.

    The movement to no lockers and 30lb backpacks...what happened there? Is this really necessary? Did education policy thought drive this or fiscal policy? Did anybody think through the effect of the this policy on children riding the bus?

    How many other examples could we find?

    These are examples, I think, of where public education has lost control of the bus. Clearly private education doesn't tend to suffer from these kinds of issues.

    Maybe this doesn't help the conversation, and if it doesn't I'm sure you will let me know.

    By Anonymous Terry M., at 1/24/2006 3:23 PM  

  • Anon must have attended public schools...I think he/she meant to say "too."

    I realize that is not constructive, but it was too funny to pass up.

    By Anonymous Liberty1st, at 1/24/2006 3:40 PM  

  • Terry,
    Your comments definitely help the conversation, and I appreciate your insight.

    When I said that innovation is needed, the things you mention are some of the components that must be explored. You point out some very good examples of things that should be examined in the greater concept of education reform.

    School choice is one component of education reform, but certainly not the only area where improvements can be made. I think that the contributors to this blog are interested in any contructive ideas that can improve education for Virginia's students.

    By Anonymous whitney, at 1/24/2006 3:46 PM  

  • anon 12:41,
    Can you please be more constructive in your comments? If you have legitimate concerns about not allowing parents and children the option of choosing which school they prefer, please forward them.

    By Anonymous Chris Saxman, at 1/24/2006 9:10 PM  

  • Elsewhere in this blog I believe there is a discussion about outsourcing. While I am not generally convinced that outsourcing is a long-term money-saver, I think there are some valuable concepts to consider.

    As an exercise, consider the things that public schools are required or expected to do and then ask if those things are what we want to pay teachers or administrators to do.

    For instance, basic hygiene issues are often taught...including dental hygiene. Why not outsource such to local health professionals that have experience working with proper age group?

    Groundskeeping, janitorial services, cafeteria services could be outsourced. Technology as well - anecdotal evidence from multiple states suggests that K12 technology managers are really behind the times.

    These don't even touch the surface of what is possible. And I suggest that we look at this, not only to fix public K12, but to avoid making the same mistakes in growing private would be very easy to regulate these schools into mediocrity through a voucher system.

    By Anonymous Terry M., at 1/24/2006 10:52 PM  

  • on vouchers - it should be made crystal clear that there is very little support for them in virginia for the very reason you cite. most schools that would be eligible do not want the strings attached with state money.
    oddly, no one ever mentions that the higher ed Tuition Assistance Grants are in fact vouchers. these TAG grants go to schools with religious affiliation and no one seems to mind. Also, the state currently grants money to pre-k programs with religious affiliations.
    so, pre-k and higher ed can get direct funding but k-12 is constitutionally prohibited from this policy.

    By Anonymous Chris Saxman, at 1/25/2006 9:22 AM  

  • Del. Saxman, A very good point on TAG grants, and something we'd actually mentioned during the first week of session in a post on education:

    Terry, you also bring up some very good points about things that could be done more efficiently and cost-effectively by the public schools, and I think this ties back in to the discussion on the 65% solution legislation. (

    If we direct more funding go to the classroom and actual "in-classroom" educational costs, schools will have to examine ways to reduce those other costs of operation: janitorial services, cafeteria services, transportation costs, etc.

    I think you're right that these only scratch the surface, and I'd be interested in other ideas from folks who have suggestions on areas in the public schools where we could operate more efficiently.

    By Anonymous whitney, at 1/25/2006 9:44 AM  

  • I thought the TAG grants essentially were available to in-state students who choose to attend private shcools, essentially it is a payment from the state, because by attending the a private institution (by an in-state student) the state will give a student $2,000 a year, vs. say $6,000 if that same student would go to say JMU..

    Therefore, one maybe could make the argument that TAG grants are the higher education's equivalent to vouchers? Maybe..

    In my opinion it's a bit of a stretch, comparing TAG grants go to a what I would assume is a small population (and covers a fraction of the cost for a private school) and K-12 vouchers would (obviously) potentially fund millions of kids, as opposed to maybe a few thousand eligible for TAG grants.

    I'm not a fan of vouchers, I personally veiw it as another attempt to give a tax break to wealthy..but having said that, I know that in England, vouchers, and quasi public/private/religious institution educaiton is often funded by vouchers, and does appear to work well. So possible we here in the USA could learn some things from this, but I still believe that vouchers are just another attempt for the anti-public educaion (and generally anti government) elites (aka Republican Party of VA) to transfer education (and $$$) from the state, to private schools (i.e. Halliburton Academy)

    is that positive enought for you Chris?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/25/2006 10:08 AM  

  • Del Saxman, on the issue of TAG, the law is very clear that TAG grants cannot be used by students pursuing religious instruction. For example, students studying to be ministers are inelegible.

    Another difference, one that is below the radar of most folks, but that I think is profound, is thenature of the state's constitution.

    Article VIII, Section 1: Public schools of high quality to be maintained.

    The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.

    Sections 2-8 go into the existence and duties of the board, local boards, the literary fund, and mandating free textbooks.

    When it comes to higher education, section 9 says: The General Assembly may provide for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of any educational institutions which are desirable for the intellectual, cultural, and occupational development of the people of this Commonwealth. The governance of such institutions, and the status and powers of their boards of visitors or other governing bodies, shall be as provided by law.
    and then goes on in 11 to authorize TAG and contracts with nonpublic institutions.

    Basically, there is a fundamental gap in Virginia's thinking between k12 and collegeiate education. How does this the gap direct our policy thought? If we want the range and creativity we have in postsecondary education, do we need to simply loosen the constitutional reins and free ourselves of ideas that may be out of date? Or if not out of date, but simply overly specific?

    By Anonymous Terry M., at 1/25/2006 10:08 AM  

  • Correct on religious study but the money goes to schools with religious affiliation. Mary Baldwin is affiliated with the Presbyterian.

    Yes, anon, that is more appropriate discussion. First, the GOP is not ANTI-government. Second, vouchers are not constitutional and no one is attempting to change that here in Virginia. Third, the small population you refer to in the TAG program is accurate and the same percentages usually occur in school choice because many public schools are very good like yours in Rockingham County.
    Last, the point that this would only help the rich is ridiculous since a) the rich already have school choice and b) the language of last year's bill explicitly stated that low-income, at-risk students were the only ones eligible for tuition scholarships.
    Currently about 9% of k-12 students do not attend Virginia public schools. What would the Commonwealth do if all 125,000 students enrolled next year and what would that cost?
    Since there would be significant costs as a result, it is logical to assume that the money not spent is a net savings. That is then available for appropriation most of which would go to public education.
    Public schools should embrace this reform not shun it.

    By Anonymous Chris Saxman, at 1/25/2006 10:47 AM  

  • Anon,
    Thank you for your more constructive discussion this time. I think you highlight some of the arguments made by oppents of school choice that were referenced in the WSJ article.

    A school choice plan does not imply that every student is going to switch schools. The Staunton News Leader has a pretty good article on school choice today. In it, a parent is quoted saying he thinks the local schools are very good, and he's never thought about private school for his child. But as Del. Saxman points out, there is a tremendous cost savings already associated with students not currently enrolled in VA public schools.

    This is not about being anti-public education. From studies here in the US, when choice is implemented, it first benefits the students, and more generally, the public schools improve as well.

    Our discussion here on the blog has been about different ways we can improve all education in VA, and making sure we give all students the opportunity to succeed, while ensuring tax dollars are being effectively invested. No one is suggesting an end to public schools.

    By Anonymous whitney, at 1/25/2006 10:59 AM  

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