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Guest Post: Choice and Competition – Improving or Undermining Public Education?

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We asked some of the journalists attending EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University in May, to contribute posts from the sessions. You can find additional content, including video, at EdMedia Commons. Jessica Williams of The Lens in is today’s guest blogger.For video of the seminar session, click here.For More on charters and choice, check out Story Starters, EWA’s online resource with the latest research, good sources, and coverage on a wide range of education issues.

School choice gives parents more opportunities, and thus, creates better outcomes for all children, right?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

The head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, American Federation for Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, and long-time school choice advocate, American Federation for Children’s Kevin Chavous, debated the merits of school choice and competition at the Education Writers Association’s 66th National Seminar.

They both held their own in a conversation that turned heated at times, swiftly countering each other’s views in front of a room full of reporters. Weingarten stressed that voucher programs and charter schools haven’t delivered academically and called for more support of traditional programs, while Chavous argued that traditional education models haven’t given students what they need.

Weingarten pointed to choice programs in Milwaukee and Chile to prove her claim, saying that Milwaukee’s choice system “didn’t create the leaps and bounds that kids need.”

And while academic performance has risen for some students in Chile, which implemented a nationwide voucher program in the 1980s, eventually middle- and upper-class families just headed to the free private schools – effectively dismantling the country’s public education system, she argued. A 2002 study on the issue found lower-income students fell even further behind academically as a result.

Milwaukee’s Parent Choice program, which also allows public school students to attend private schools on the state’s dime, has been in effect since the 1990s. A recent report released by the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee found that public school students outperformed their voucher counterparts on Wisconsin’s standardized math and reading tests. Studies have shown that Milwaukee’s charters, which have been around since 1996, have had no significant effect on student achievement.

But Chavous reminded the crowd that choice systems have done well in other places, such as Washington, D.C., where he served as a councilman. In the district, 94 percent of students in the voucher program graduate, and 85 percent of those students go on to college, he said. He dismissed the Chile study quickly – “I’m not going to talk about Chile,” he said – and moved onto rebuffing Weingarten’s assertion that he was against traditional public schools.

“She’s weaved this into an either/or proposition, from my point of view,” he said. While most of the country’s children will continue to go to traditional public schools, “we know…they don’t work for all kids.”

Choice-based systems offer an alternative for kids who are struggling in that traditional model, he said.

“We need to fly the plane before we fix it,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to help kids who have these critical needs today. That isn’t about promoting one system over the other; it’s about figuring out how to help kids where they are.”

Weingarten, too, wanted the crowd to know that despite the statistics she cited on school choice, she’s not against it. She just wants equal time and money devoted to creating good traditional schools: “When you are doing your choice stuff, can we actually look at this stuff too?” she asked, citing the qualities that make schools work.

When the conversation turned to school closures and the effects they have on students, Chavous said that all bad schools – traditional public, private, and charter alike – should be shut down, to avoid letting kids languish. Weingarten agreed, but pointed out, “There’s a difference between shutting an individual school down and mass closures.” When schools are shut down, it’s not guaranteed that those students will end up at better schools, she said.

The two agreed that collaborations between charters and traditional schools, such as New Haven’s shared principal training programs and other new partnerships, are positive. More collaborative efforts like that, Chavous said, could “create a culture that is depoliticized.” And they both acknowledged shortcomings in their organizations’ approaches. The union was misguided in thinking that “the boss is always wrong, the member is always right,” Weingarten said. (Critics have blamed union contracts for keeping ineffective teachers in classrooms and stifling school innovation.)

And Chavous said that reformers haven’t mastered “the tough part of building a relationship, gaining trusted sources.” Particularly in school turnarounds and charter conversions, when perceived “outsiders” enter the schools, they can face pushback from the entrenched communities. “Ramming it through doesn’t work,” he acknowledged.