Monday, August 2, 2010

Joe's Take: Baffling

Baffling. That’s one way to describe the back-to-back speeches last week by Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama at the centennial celebration of the National Urban League.

Both Obama and Duncan decried the status quo in education, offered some expensive and untried proposals for improvement, but failed to embrace an obvious and economical reform: school choice.

Too many low-income children are sentenced to chronically underperforming schools and nearly 50 percent of African-American and Latino students drop out of high school, putting themselves and the nation at risk, said the secretary. But while acknowledging some pockets of educational excellence that exist across the country, he and his boss overlooked the amazing work being done by religious and independent schools to combat the drop-out rate and close the achievement gap.

The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that black eighth-grade students in private schools score roughly two full grade levels higher in reading than their counterparts in public schools. According to other government reports, private high school students take tougher courses, score much better on the SATs and ACTs, and go to college at significantly higher rates than their public school peers. If getting more students ready for college is the administration’s primary educational goal, then helping more parents choose private schools for their children should be at the front of reform efforts.

Yet, astoundingly, the Obama team has shunned school choice (except for the president’s children) as a way to improve performance, even initiating the slow death of the popular and effective DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) by shutting out new students. As a result, some religious schools in the nation’s capital that participate in the program will likely close, denying opportunities for lifelong success to an even wider scope of students, scholarship and non-scholarship alike, and forcing many families to switch to government schools at taxpayer expense.

A random-assignment study commissioned by the Education Department has found that students who attended private schools through the OSP were more likely -- by 21 percentage points -- to receive a high school diploma than a control group that did not take part in the program. Can any of the administration’s proposals boast a similar record of proven performance backed by gold-standard research? If the goal is to expand college-prep opportunities for minority students, why on earth kill a program that demonstrates remarkable success in achieving just that?

And here’s the kicker, it achieves the success at substantial savings to taxpayers. The scholarships are worth a maximum of $7,500 per student, far less than the per-pupil cost in DC public schools. With government spending out of control and voters demanding that budgets be balanced, policymakers should be embracing programs that deliver results at lower costs. Instead the administration has turned to charter schools, an expensive alternative that shifts the entire cost of education to the taxpayer and narrows opportunities by forcing some traditional religious schools to close.

“We know what's possible -- we are seeing it all over the country,” said Duncan. He’s right, but he and the president failed to acknowledge the obvious centers of excellence that exist in private schools and the contribution those schools make to improving education while saving taxpayers lots of money. Baffling.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)