For two decades, choice-based reform has been unwisely and deceptively offered by its proponents as something akin to a miracle cure that will boost student achievement, unleash competition, and advance core democratic values.
Along the way, little attention has been paid to the design of these efforts to deregulate a $500 billion a year industry, fostering a vibrant supply of effective providers, nurturing effective mechanisms for quality control, or understanding the multiplicity of arrangements and practices that stifle even nontraditional schools and service providers. For instance, the choice community has had next to nothing to say about the need for venture capital in education, about the ways in which personnel policies and benefit systems stifle new ventures, or about how consumer choices should impact the compensation and job security of educators and school leaders.
One result is that some who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.
For decades, we have poured money into schooling while seeing few obvious benefits. Current per-pupil spending in constant dollars more than tripled between 1961-62 and 2003-04, from $2,603 to $8,886. Pupil-to-teacher ratios plunged, from 25.1 students per teacher in 1965 to 15.3 per teacher in 2007. Meanwhile, educational progress has been disappointing, at best, over the past quarter-century. This is the epitome of pushing on a string. In an economy marked by new technologies, labor-saving devices, steady growth in productivity, and an evolving labor pool, we are hiring and deploying educators just the way we did a half-century ago. The result is that new investments have not delivered the hoped-for results.
In other words, we need to do what is difficult, we need to fire people, and overcome the special interests which protect them. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is doing just that. God bless her.
Addendum: Good to see the DCist is in agreement.