Tuesday, February 25, 2014

ALEC's Model Legislation for School and Course Choice Leads to Unequal, Separate Education

The Future is Digital!

A 1985 film, Back to the Future, features skateboards hovering above sidewalks, recycled garbage for fuel, and time travel in the not-so-distant tomorrow. In 1987, Wall Street showed power-player Gordon Gekko walking with an early cell phone about as long as a shoe box and about half as wide. Over the course of its television life, Mulder and Scully carried increasingly smaller and smaller cell phones in a nod to changing times.

Now we have notebooks, laptops, Google glass, wristwatches, and smart phones that bring the world and messages to us without much effort on our parts. For good or bad, ours is an electronic, digital world, one that has changed how we think and acquire knowledge.

Educational Landscape

Once upon a time, public education took place in neighborhood schools, but neighborhoods were often racially and economically segregated, White children from Black, rich from poor. Poorer districts, with poorer tax bases, often received fewer funds; thus, public education wasn’t equal.

Petitioners used the courts to secure equal educational opportunities for all races, both genders, English and English Language Learners, and different economic and/or ability groups. As a consequence, school districts now transport children farther from their neighborhoods to schools and in theory, children of all races, ethnicities, social groups, and abilities intermingle.

In practice, however, some people prefer separate educations. Whites fled inner cities, moving to suburbs, in part to insure the separation of races; this has led to a different kind of school system: inner city schools, once again underfunded according to tax base, and suburban schools, usually well-funded. Some groups, preferring separate educations and building upon a European model, enrolled their children in private schools frequently built upon a religious foundation so Catholics attended school with other Catholics, Jews with Jews. For the faithful without a juggernaut as large as Catholicism or Judaism, home schooling began to grow in popularity, and entire industries providing books and curriculum were born.

Furthermore, many now believe that public schools have failed so new choices and new models must be given support and wings. Government in partnership with private enterprise stepped in to provide both.

Support and Wings New Orleans Style

The catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans, Louisiana in the unique position of starting over, and their schools were reinvented. With schools damaged, whole neighborhoods displaced, and an infrastructure in need of rebuilding, 7,000 teachers were laid off. Only recently did Courts determine that this was unlawful, especially because these teachers were not given places in the new school system emerging and run by the state rather than the city or district.

Charters rushed into the opening created by Hurricane Katrina. These charters, with the full support of Louisiana’s governor, are run by private investors receiving public money. The public rationale includes the assumption that public schools can not meet every need and indeed often fail to succeed in the absence of competition. Charters inspire excellence, according to charter proponents, by providing competition.

Some charters have not succeeded, and some have not proved to be stable choices. One charter faces an abbreviated tenure in New Orleans due to financial discrepancies. Others often employ Teach for America (TFA) personnel, a program that provides five weeks’ training for recent college graduates and a two-year commitment to teach in low performing and/or low-income schools. TFA staff turns over frequently because most TFA teachers do not remain in the profession at the end of two years, or they move to high performing schools once their two-year commitment with TFA ends.

The Role of ALEC and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush addressed ALEC and recommended, among other things, no more social promotion in order to insure literacy for U. S. citizens. This recommendation leads to third-grade testing and retention if the student does not read at a pre-set level. Bush, as founder and spokesman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also advocates virtual and online education, both, like charters, tied to for-profit companies, including Pearson, an educational testing company that donates to the Bush education foundation and to ALEC.

An entire industry dedicated to essential educational reforms, in league with and building upon Bush’s Foundation, advocates charter school choices and online and/or virtual learning options. New Orleans, Houston, and so many other cities and states, including Oklahoma, have embraced this recommendation even as they shave educational budgets in this so-called tough economy.

All of this rush to provide choice in brick and mortar schools as well as courses begs the question: do charters and online education deliver a better product and healthy, high achieving children? Several studies, including one reported by Diane Ravitch, once a school reformer but now a reformed reformer, suggest that neither charters nor course choices are solutions. Few charter schools outperform public education; in fact, the documentary, Waiting for Superman, celebrates the rise of charters, but grants that only one in five produces stellar results on par with or better than public schools. 
Al Griffin Photography

Online and/or virtual educational choice is not an answer either. Most children still need collaborative learning and a teacher as guide to excel. Cyber schools can’t boast about graduation rates either, but this is what ALEC advocates: more freedom to choose schools and to use online education when courses are unavailable or interests and student needs differ.


Schools are under siege. Public services are being examined and crushed. Budgets are tight, and international test scores lag behind other nations, but we know why: poverty, unequal funding, the very conditions we once sought to correct. Charters and choice are not solutions for poverty; they too often abandon poor kids without transportation or parental vision to no education. Liberty, freedom, choice, and excellence should be equal opportunities, not just for the few.