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Going All the Way.

It's time to stop looking at "halfway" changes to reform the public schools, Mr. Mote suggests. A level playing field with inherent economic fairness for all and the freedom to choose is a truly American solution and one that we ought to be pursuing.

SOME MONTHS AGO, in a moment of frustration about some of the goings-on in my public school system, I wrote the following article about "change."

I am an educator. Educators hate change. That's why public schools are failing - because people like me resist change. It's obvious.

Four years ago our school system hired a new superintendent. His name is unimportant, but his mantra was "change." Our savior. In only four years, the district wrought these changes:

1. Replaced expensive (and experienced) instructional supervisors with teacher specialists. Institutional memory was erased from the main office - no one there to stand in the way of change.

2. Replaced letter grades with numerical grades. Students are learning a lot more because of this.

3. Implemented site-based decision making (sometimes referred to as site- based blame laying). If there is a problem, the school must be responsible, since it makes all the decisions. Just ask anyone in the central office.

4. Implemented E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge in all the elementary schools. Amazing how each of the sites managed to make the same decision at the same time.

5. Instituted the six-period day at the high schools to allow more options for students. Actually, it has been reinstituted, since the school system had gone to a seven-period day to give students more options only a few years previously. So much for institutional memory.

6. Started voluntary school uniforms in some elementary schools. The number of students voluntarily wearing uniforms has dropped steadily since the program's inception.

7. Proposed K-8 elementary schools. This will, through some miracle of metaphysics, give us more classroom space. Middle schools don't work, anyway. (Expensive middle school principals were upset, of course.)

8. Instituted performance pay for administrators. This ensures compliance with change.

9. Proposed multi-year student/teacher relationships. Good idea. If only teachers would go along.

10. Began a "professional senate" to discuss system concerns. Meets twice a year. Some years.

11. Eliminated expensive teachers for gifted students in elementary schools but maintained the gifted program. Neat trick.

12. Gave some teachers increased planning time by instituting schoolwide assemblies each day. Very Japanese. Students sit on the cafeteria floor and sing the school song while teachers plan.

I am an educator. Educators hate change. What's my problem, anyway?

While writing this article was good therapy for me, I quickly realized that no one would be interested in reading such a negative polemic. If I wanted to be heard, I would need to provide some solutions. After all, if, as I contend, change can be superficial and unproductive, doesn't that mean that I support the status quo?

On the contrary. The more I pondered, the more it seemed to me that, based on my 25 years of experience working in private and public schools, the time is right for real change. To explain how I arrived at my "heretical" solution, I need to lead readers step by step through my reasoning process. Be forewarned that, when I decided to tackle these issues, I was in no mood for further "cosmetic" changes.

Public Versus Private

The starting point in my thinking was to ask, If things are not working right in the public schools, then what is the alternative? More and more parents seem to think that the answer to public schools is private schools.

Private schools have been around for a long time, and they have always been about the same thing - separation. Separation of children from the public schools by their parents, who are seeking a "better" education for their children. Most Americans would agree that separating students - whether for reasons of race, gender, religion, or social class - is contrary to some strong societal values. After all, separate is inherently unequal. On the other hand, attaining a better education for one's children is anything but contrary to our individual values - it is a parent's surest method of guaranteeing success for his or her child.

Through the first half of this century, America enjoyed an uneasy truce between private and public schools; public schools were deemed to be "good enough" by most parents, so the cost of private schools was borne only by a small and committed minority. In recent years, however, as the perception of public school "slippage" has grown, the demand for "private-school-type" education has also grown. And it has grown among those who believe that their tax dollars entitle them to receive the virtues of a private school education without having to pay more than their taxes. Thus the movement toward charter schools, vouchers, and magnet schools has been spawned. Parents want discipline, high academic expectations, and structure for their children - things that they do not believe the typical public schools offer.

The public schools have not been blind to this cry for alternatives, and they have responded by trying to adopt some features that had previously been seen primarily in the private school sector. School uniforms, curriculum standards, site-based management, mission statements, and rigorous testing are among the many solutions being espoused to deal with the public school "problem." Those of us, like myself, who work in public education know that these solutions, like so many that preceded them, will come up short. Public schools can never hope to become like private schools for reasons that I will discuss shortly.

However, all of this disguises a more interesting phenomenon: while public schools strive to resemble their private school counterparts, it is actually the private schools that may be consumed as they are forced to adopt the characteristics of their public cousins. To understand all of this more thoroughly, we need to understand some of the reasons why public schools are perceived to be in decline.

The Decline of Public Schools

While I am anything but a luminary, I once had lunch with Gerald Bracey. Like him, I believe that there are still many good public schools in America. Unlike Bracey, however, I believe that these public schools are being slowly and inexorably pulled down, year after year, so that someday, if the trend is left unchecked, they may resemble their inner-city counterparts.

A brief look at any of the many education journals that cross my desk in a given month reveals a long list of "causes" for this public school "decline." Articles abound on the sorry state of teacher preparation, the demise of the American family and its values, the obstructionism of teacher unions, the declining resources being devoted to education, the foolishness of teacher tenure, and so on. But my favorite cause is the evolution of public education from a privilege to a right. The universal "right" to a free public school education, something that I believe the Founders of our nation never intended, has so altered the way we do business in public schools that we cannot effectively set higher standards or even maintain the standards that we already have.

Before I get to my solution to the public school "problem," I want to provide two brief case studies that I believe are indicative of the problems created by the "right" to an education. If you agree that these case studies are illustrative of the problems besetting public schools, then stick around as I explain how my solution would prevent, or at least resolve, each of these cases.

Case study 1. Recently, in a small rural school system near mine, a high school student brought a knife and cut up several seats on a school bus. He had previously been diagnosed as having an emotional handicap (EH), and this incident was but one of several disruptive behaviors he had engaged in. He has been suspended several times but has now reached the 10-day limit imposed by the courts for special education students and cannot be suspended again this school year. His destructive behavior is a manifestation of his disability, and his mother (no father is present) is refusing the system's attempts to assign a more restrictive placement. For the near future at least, he will remain in school and will be mainstreamed with the other students, as called for in his individualized education program. The district will pay to repair the seats, and the other students will pay the price of having to accommodate this disruptive student in their classrooms. For the record, his mother is a drug user whose only real involvement with her child is to keep the school system from sending him home to her.

Case study 2. One of the teachers in my school recently received a letter that read in part:

[My son] informs me that you punished him yesterday for spitting on another child. He says that he was just trying to spit on the ground, but the other child got in the way - accidents do happen! Perhaps the problem isn't what my son does, but the fact that he is the blackest child in the class. I do not want you to punish my child like this anymore.

For the record, the parent who wrote this letter has stood up the teacher for scheduled parent conferences on three separate occasions. The child is not the "blackest" student in the class (which the parent has never seen). The child has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and almost all of his discipline problems have occurred on days when his parents "forgot" to give him his medication.

Now I hope that these two case studies do not brand me as "anti-disabilities" or as "racist." I have many wonderful special education students, both Anglo and African American, whose parents cooperate with the teachers and realize that, as the parents of a youngster with a disability, they will have to work harder, just like their children. You may, however, brand me as someone who is opposed to parents who drop their problem children on the school and then work against us as we try to solve the problems.

These case studies illustrate a vicious cycle. Schools are forced to spend more and more of their resources to accommodate children whose parents have discovered that they can substitute their child's "right" to an education for their responsibilities as parents. The schools get no kudos from other parents or from the general community for this diversion of funds. In fact, most parents insist that schools spend money to provide programs that will keep their children separate from the disruptive ones. And the public schools continue to slide further downhill as existing (or declining) dollars are expected to provide more and more programs. A very vicious cycle indeed.

Private School Solution?

Whether you agree with me that the "right" to an education is the underlying cause for the decline of public schools or whether you subscribe to one of the other "causes," what we are really interested in here is the solution. If the public schools are in decline, the solution must be private schools, right?

Not so fast. A February 1997 issue of Education Week was largely devoted to a discussion of the problems that charter schools have had trying to conform to special education laws. As charter schools and private schools in general clamor for public funds, they will also be making themselves liable to the same laws and expectations that have played such a role in the decline of public schools. As they receive public money, they will lose control over whom they can enroll and what types of services they can provide. In short, they will become public schools!

For those who say that this could never happen, it is important to remember that it will not be an overnight occurrence. It is even possible that laws could change

in the meantime and that private schools would be saved from the morass. However, if the laws are going to change, why not change them now and provide some respite for public schools?

But I do not think that the laws are going to change. We have gotten where we are incrementally, and at each new stage the special-interest groups and lobbies have become entrenched. Legislatures are not going to save us. We continue to want public schools to be all things to all people, despite the fact that they fail so many. So how do we solve the problem? Read on.

The Solution

The solution lies not in incremental change but in one massive change that will alter the whole gestalt of public education. I am a public school principal, yet I believe that the only real hope for a rever-sal of fortunes in public schools lies with vouchers. In fact, the real problem with voucher proposals is that they have not gone far enough.

Rather than receive vouchers for fixed, small amounts, I believe that every parent should receive a voucher for the full amount of educating his or her child. Here's how it would work. If a school system currently spends $5,000 to educate a typical child, the parent receives a voucher for $5,000. Further, if the school system spends $6,000 on an ADHD child and $8,000 on an EH child, the parents of these students would receive vouchers in these amounts. Each parent would receive the voucher amount that the school system currently spends for his or her child.

Here are the rules for using the vouchers.

1. They may be used to pay for the child's education at any school that the parent likes. The only qualifier here is that the voucher must be accepted by the school as the full amount for educating the child. If a parent has a $5,000 voucher but wants his or her child to go to a school that charges $11,000, the parent would be required to pay the full amount - the voucher could not be used to pay for the first $5,000. This stipulation is absolutely necessary to prevent the establishment of "have" and "have-not" schools. In order to participate in the voucher program, schools must agree not to charge more than the amount of the voucher.

Please note that parents who wanted to send their children to expensive private schools would certainly be allowed to do so and that their out-of-pocket expense would be exactly the same as it is today.

2. The vouchers could not be used to pay for home schooling. If parents decide to home school their youngsters, they receive no monetary reimbursement from the voucher program. The vouchers could, however, be used to pay for professional tutoring provided outside of a school environment.

3. Schools would be allowed to link together to provide economy of scale. For example, schools could network with other schools for services such as transportation.

4. There would be no laws regarding special education requirements. Instead, parents of special education students would be able to negotiate services based on the increased amounts of their vouchers. They would be free to use their vouchers at schools that specialize in disabilities or at ones that offer no such specialization.

5. There would be no prejudice against religious schools. Parents could choose to use their vouchers at a school that offers as much or as little religion as they like.

6. Perhaps most important, schools would be free to accept or refuse a voucher.

Why This Solution?

My solution represents free enterprise at its best, and it changes the entire chemistry of how schools work. I am the principal of a public school, and I strongly believe that I can compete with any other school under the rules described above. In fact, with my solution, the distinction between public and private schools disappears. Each school participating in the voucher program must offer economy and a high-quality product if it expects to survive.

How does this solution improve things? Let's take a look at how the two case studies presented above would be affected by this proposal. The parent of the EH child in the first case study would have an $8,000 voucher (given the hypothetical allocation for an EH student) with which to "buy" education for her child each year. This amount certainly represents an inducement for a school to enroll the child. On the other hand, if the behavior of the disruptive child threatens to drive away other paying clientele, the school might choose not to accept the voucher. If I were the high school principal involved, I would probably choose to accept the voucher with some stipulations - one of which would be that the parent attend parenting classes offered by the school. As principal, I would also understand that, if I chose to "unenroll" the child, I would be required to return the voucher in its full amount. The parent could go someplace else.

The second case study becomes simple. If the parent truly believes that the school is prejudiced against her child, she can enroll him elsewhere. On the other hand, the school might also elect to "unenroll" the student if the parent continues to be a no-show for parent conferences.

This solution does not bring about the end of universal education. There will certainly be schools that will be willing to accept the voucher of even the most disruptive student. However, parents would probably want to think twice before attempting to abrogate their responsibilities to the school - after all, the school might decide to say no to their voucher. There would be a strong incentive for both parties - parents and schools - to work cooperatively. The absolute "right" to an education is replaced by the right of both the parent and the school to choose.

When I try out this solution on my colleagues, they are usually horrified by what they see as "the end of public education." What they fail to see, at least initially, is that the schools will not end; rather, the labels "public" and "private" will lose their meaning.

My school counselor, a thoughtful person, offered a more profound insight. "I worry," he said, "about the students that no school would want." Indeed, while I too worry about them, I also believe that this solution, which amounts to "tough love" for these students and their parents, provides the only real incentive for them to change their behaviors. In any case, we cannot continue to allow these few to drag all of us down.

Changing Roles

The roles of the various players involved in the enterprise of education would certainly change under my proposal. I believe that these changes would be positive ones for children. Let's take a look at how this solution affects some of the major parties involved.

Government. National, state, and local governments are each involved in education. However, since the level or type of involvement can vary greatly between locales, allow me the liberty of lumping them all together for the purpose of ease of illustration.

The role of government under this proposal would be threefold. First, government would have to provide funding for the vouchers. Government currently provides funding only for public school students. Under this proposal there are no "public" and "private" school students, there are only students.

Second, government would have to monitor to ensure a level playing field. For example, government would have to ensure that schools did not have hidden costs for parents that would violate the limit of the voucher. Government would also have to ensure that vouchers were not refused for reasons of race or ethnicity.

Finally, government would be responsible for establishing an evaluation system for schools. The government would administer a uniform testing program that would give parents and schools information about the success of students.

Central office. Most public schools are part of a school system that is administered by a central office. All too often schools end up serving this central office rather than the reverse.

Under this proposal, schools could choose to contract with a central office for services such as transportation, maintenance, and staff development. The key difference, however, is that schools could choose. Schools would contract with this central office only as long as the service provided was beneficial. A school would be free to end its relationship with the central office at any time and to seek the service from another source or "go it alone" for that service. Under this design, schools would control the size and authority of the central office.

Schools. Schools would be in the business of providing a direct service to paying customers. They would need to describe the service accurately and then deliver what was promised or face the prospect of losing customers.

Decisions as to which services to provide would have to be based on economic realities. To offer English-only instruction in a multicultural community might be economic suicide (or maybe not). Special education services would need to be designed so that they would pay for themselves. Schools would be in direct competition with one another, but each existing school would have the natural advantage of its location. (Parents will not go to a grocery store that is 20 miles from home if a store of equal quality is only two blocks from home.) Competition is healthy.

Parents. Consumers want the best service for their money. Applying this principle to education, parents would be wise to learn about their neighborhood schools in order to make a sound decision for their children. They would quickly discover that one essential quality of successful schools is supportive parents, and this realization would create a decidedly nonvicious cycle. As parents seek high-quality schooling, they will need to learn more about schooling and be more involved. As they learn more and become more involved, the schools will improve. A very nice cycle indeed.

I believe that we should stop looking at "halfway" changes and make a change that has the real possibility of curing what ails us. A level playing field with inherent economic fairness for all and the freedom to choose is a truly American solution and one that we ought to be pursuing.

MICHAEL MOTE is the principal of Mt. Harmony Elementary School, Owings, Md.
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Author:Mote, Michael
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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