OPINION: Columnist Debunks School Choice Myths. Was unaware until earlier today that this week has been dubbed, “School Choice Week.” I am all for choice in schools, and Minnesota has been a leader every step of the way from open enrollment, to “choice schools” and the charter school movement.
A personal favorite of mine are the choice schools available in Rochester, MN. I have the good fortune to have one child enrolled at a choice school and to be able to work at another of those schools. Rochester’s choice schools are proving that public education is and can be VERY successful.
While I attended a parochial school in the Milwaukee, WI area for high school, and I understand the argument people make concerning paying both tuition for a private school and property taxes, the facts are that most students attending private schools, yes, private elementary and secondary schools, do so at substantially reduced rates through scholarships and other means. Another seldom-mentioned fact is that in most locales the public education system is obligated to provide transportation to private schools within the school district’s boundaries (in my case, I was bused OUT of the suburbs and into the City of Milwaukee at suburban taxpayer expense). So, neither the argument that the parents are truly “paying” both and, nor the argument that private schools “do more with less” really hold water. (Admittedly, my father was one in that category who did pay both and because of his significant income; however, the vast majority of families at my high school and at the parochial school in MN where I taught for three years, paid literally pennies on the dollar towards the “real” tuition cost.)
I do not know the statutes in other states, but I am also aware that Minnesota statute requires the local school district to purchase or lend any and all textbooks requested (with the exception of purely religious texts). To my knowledge, the majority of private schools, parochial included, utilize this statute to their enormous benefit. At the parochial school where I taught in MN, all textbooks were clearly identified as the “property of” the local public school. Another significant cost savings for the private school, and yet a further explanation for the belief that private schools “do more with less.”
There is another common misconception regarding private schools: that private and parochial teachers “make more money.” Perhaps they do at a handful of exclusive and outrageously expensive schools, but on the whole, private school teachers, especially in parochial schools (which the vast majority of private schools are) earn substantially less than their public school counterparts. Yet another reason that private schools apparently “do more with less.”
For those who would now vilify the public school teacher, consider that all of the true professions pay substantially more than does public education. There seems to be some notion that public school teachers are earning on average far more than they actually do. For example, I know of no teacher in our local district earning $70,000 per year. Any teacher who is near this figure, I believe the local wage scale tops out at $65,000 for a PhD with 20+ years experience(!) has certainly paid his or her dues in time, personal expense (the district didn’t pay for that PhD!) and experience in the classroom to “deserve” double that figure! The average wage for a teacher in our district is between $35,000-$45,000. A teacher with an M.A. starts at $40,000. Any who dispute these statements are welcome to find this publicly available information on the ISD 535 website: http://rochester.k12.mn.us .
Now let’s touch on the popular concept of charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools and the funds used to pay for these schools may not come directly from the local district, but they do impact the bottom line of the local district negatively, unless the local district happens to be the charter sponsor, in which case, the charter school can actually be a boon to the local district. Charter schools have their place, to be sure, but the typical charter school has about the same track record for success as the typical small business: three or so years. The vast majority of charter schools fail to accomplish what they purposed and thus fail to benefit the children who were supposedly being failed by the existing public schools. Charter schools, like private schools, often pay teachers significantly less than they would earn if employed by the local district. Charter schools often have poor oversight. In short, charter schools are no panacea.
To conclude I will revisit the novel concept of choice schools that has been so effective in our local district. Without going into detail because the details can again be found by perusing the local district website at http://rochester.k12.mn.us, we offer a variety of options for our students and families. Who attends is chosen by lottery, but generally, those who truly wish to attend a choice school will be accepted. Once the first child in a family is in, the younger siblings will be automatically accepted to that school. Choice schools are an alternative public school option for students whose neighborhood schools have not met AYP. In fact, students from schools not meeting AYP will be given priority over students whose neighborhood school does meet AYP. The students at our choice schools, on the whole, outperform the students at our neighborhood schools, even where neighborhood schools do meet AYP. Choice schools are a viable alternative to private and charter schools, and in the end, the only reasons a private school or charter school may be less expensive to administer in the near term, are those reasons above stated: teachers earn less, and the local district heavily subsidizes with busing, books, and other services, so what happens in the long term when we have depleted the resources of our public districts by shifting the funds to the creation of new “charter schools” that may ultimately fail? We will have created a nightmare!
*Addendum, 1.25.11 See http://bit.ly/gVdmxk for article from Hechinger report documenting the comparative lack of success of charter schools in Indianapolis where only 6 of 15 charter schools made AYP!