Well, here is another story that Arne's Army of reform dead-enders or the corporate news folks are interested in, even as the question heats up on what to do with the voucher program in DC that doesn't work. Here is a pitch by Richard Kahlenberg for public school choice, wherein he reports on some very interesting research by Amy Stuart Wells.
NEW YORK, March 5 (AScribe Newswire) -- Following is commentary by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice" (Brookings Institution Press).
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The Associated Press is reporting a disagreement between Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who would like children currently in Washington, D.C.'s private school voucher program to continue receiving public funds, and Democrats in Congress, who are trying to effectively end the program after next year. Duncan told the AP, "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning." Congressional Democrats think the program needs to end and stop siphoning money from the public system. Maybe it's time for some creative thinking about another alternative: public school vouchers.
The controversy over the D.C. vouchers plan has been brewing over the past couple of weeks. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial pages have teamed up to denounce a provision in the 2009 omnibus spending bill which they say will effectively kill the ongoing Washington D.C. school voucher program that gives public funds to low-income students to attend private and religious schools. Part of the argument made by The Post and The Journal, is that it would be unfair to dump these voucher students midstream back into the largely dysfunctional Washington D.C. public school system. The Journal argued, "Without the vouchers, more than 80 percent of the 1,700 kids would have to attend public schools that haven't made 'adequate yearly progress' under No Child Left Behind." In a second editorial, The Post further suggested the anti-voucher provision reflects "the stranglehold the teachers unions have on the Democratic Party." Politically, the issue puts President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats in a tricky position, where they look cold-hearted -- and beholden to "special interests" -- if they don't continue the program.
There is, however, a third alternative for students to private school vouchers and inferior high poverty schools: giving vouchers to a reasonable number of students to attend high performing public schools in Washington's suburban districts in Maryland and Virginia. Currently, wealthy D.C. residents can pay tuition to have their children attend excellent public school systems like Montgomery County, Maryland's. Why not give those students currently receiving private school vouchers such an opportunity?
As Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University and Jennifer Jellison Holme of the University of Texas note in a new study published by The Century Foundation, eight metropolitan areas currently provide low income and minority students the chance to attend better performing suburban public schools. These programs - in Boston, St. Louis, Hartford, Milwaukee, Rochester, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and East Palo Alto-have led to greater opportunities for the low-income and minority students who have transferred, and they have broad societal benefits as well.
After an initial adjustment period, students generally see large test-score achievement gains in suburban schools. In St. Louis, for example, transfer students not only scored higher, they also were twice as likely to go on to two-year or four-year colleges than graduates of the schools they left behind. Over the longer term, students in these programs also benefit from the widely established fact that white employers prefer African-American graduates of predominantly white suburban schools over similar graduates of racially segregated inner-city schools. In all the jurisdictions reviewed, there were substantial waiting lists to participate in transfer programs. In St. Louis, for example, 3,662 black students applied for 1,163 available suburban seats in the 2007-8 school year. In Milwaukee, 2000 students applied for transfers to suburban schools, where there were only 370 slots available in 2006-7. Meanwhile, Boston's urban-suburban transfer program, known as METCO, has a waiting list of 13,000.
A federally funded D.C.- Virginia-Maryland interdistrict program could be modeled on the strengths of these other programs, which do not allow receiving districts to reject students for academic reasons; provide centers for information and outreach to transferring students; provide free transportation to students; and provide incentives for suburban districts to participate. Holme and Wells note that outreach programs have been important in St. Louis, Boston, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis in helping ease the transition of students from city to suburban schools. Suburban communities could easily absorb the modest number of students currently using private school vouchers.
One of the key reasons for the political success of these programs is the financial incentives provided to middle-class receiving districts. According to Holme and Wells, programs in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis have provided receiving districts the equivalent of their average per-pupil expenditure for resident students, while in Rochester, the suburban districts receive the city's per-pupil funding, which is close to or greater than the amount spent per pupil in the suburbs. The District of Columbia's generous per pupil expenditure of $14,400 could prove attractive to suburban jurisdictions currently starved for cash.
While there was strong political resistance to many of the existing inter-district transfer programs initially, over time suburban legislators have often come to support continuation of the programs, Holme and Wells report. And new suburban districts have asked to be added to programs in Boston, Minneapolis, and Rochester. The authors attribute the political success of the programs not only to the financial incentives provided, but also to salutary effects that the programs themselves have on the racial attitudes of students and parents in the suburbs over time.
In order for the program to work, suburban schools school be given a temporary break from the strict accountability provisions under the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB currently provides a disincentive to accepting the transfer of low-income students, who on average have lower test scores. Senator Joe Lieberman has proposed legislation under which receiving suburban districts would receive a one-year adequate yearly progress "safe harbor" for transfer students. Holme and Wells argue that transfer student progress should be monitored for five years, after which time they would be merged into the accountability provisions for the school as a whole. Such a plan could be implemented under a public school voucher program in the District.
A public school transfer program would avoid the church/state and accountability questions raised by private school vouchers. And the proposal would provide an interesting reversal of the current political posture. If conservatives opposed the program, they would suddenly become the cold-hearted opponents of giving low income kids a better education.