THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Improving public education: No issue is more entrenched in the wild and unruly machinations of New York State’s politics, nor is any issue more central to our economic recovery and our ability to be competitive in the global marketplace. The quality of public education is, indeed, the civil rights issue of our time.
But day after day, year after year, the Buffalo Public School system is failing generations of young people who will not have access to the jobs and opportunities that they deserve because we’ve failed to equip them with the skills that they need. The same tired excuses that are cited as the culprits of these horrific graduation rates are rooted in a soft bigotry that aims to justify low expectations. Today, students are victims of a culture of complacency. They’re victims of teachers unions who would rather protect this systemic mediocrity than implement the performance and incentive based systems that could improve the quality of instruction. They’re victims of administrators who are too timid or exhausted or without the drive to innovate with the programming, curriculum, operations, and student services that their schools offer.
This has been the status quo year after year because no lobby is stronger—or more central to Albany’s Democrat-led machine—than the teachers’ unions.
In short, they’re victims of a system that takes too old, pedestrian, and collectivist an approach to education: that one-size-generally-fits-all, that choice is inconsequential, that competition is bad, that decision making must be centralized, that we should be fearful of change, and that the egalitarian compensation of teachers comes before all else. Precisely the opposite is true.
The Republican alternative: Let’s make every school a charter school.
Let’s make every school currently under the operation of the Buffalo Public School system an independently managed, non-profit corporation governed by a board of trustees for each school. In effect, every school will become a charter school, free to innovate and compete for students by providing a program and curriculum that is tailored to the niche needs of a given sub-segment of students. In effect, we will have dissolved the Buffalo Public Schools (or at least the centralized management of BPS), and will have created a voucher program in which funding of schools will be directly related to school attendance and the voucher revenues they attract. All managerial responsibilities will be devolved to principals.
This creates a number of essential incentives. Parents and students can vote with their feet. Bad schools will go out of business and will close, while good schools with great programs that students want will expand. There is a market mechanism that gives secondary school principals the incentive to target the niche needs of a sub segment of the student population, and to tailor the programming and curriculum of that school to unique student interests. Schools will have a perpetual incentive to offer more services, better instruction, and to differentiate their school based on their innovations that aim to better serve students. The voucher system will, in effect, reward good programs that are working and will end bad programs that don’t. Students will have new specialized options that seek to serve them, rather than the current situation in which they have the artificial illusion of choice without it translating to substantive difference between one school’s programs and another.
Decentralized management of the school system will empower principals to innovate in all aspects of management. It will allow the introduction of performance based pay systems that would attract the best teachers who can deliver results, and will consequently reward them generously. It will allow schools to decide to forgo the summer vacation, or to lengthen the school day. It will allow schools to offer specialized vocational programs, or to create new forums for parental involvement. Competition based on the specialization of curriculum offerings and programming will give students a greater depth and breadth of options in a competitive market context in which schools compete based on best service.
This market mechanism forces every school to compete. And, despite what the oracles of feel-goodery at the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation might tell you, competition is wonderful. Competition means that each school will be striving to be better than the next because they’re performance will be evaluated relative to their peers. Together, everyone will be raising the bar higher and will be pushing the goal post further.
Instead, the Buffalo Public School system continues to dwell in a culture of complacent failure lead by an unimpressive Board of Education with an exceedingly incrementalist perspective that seems perpetually willing to sell out the interests of students so that bad teachers—who should be fired—can retain the antiquated and irresponsible perk of lifetime employment.
Rewarding results has produced results
These market based voucher systems have been introduced around the world have proven themselves effective in improving student performance in a wide set of contexts. In the Netherlands, nearly 70% of primary and secondary students attend “independent schools.” Hong Kong’s system even allows for-profit schools to participate in their voucher system. In Ireland, a majority of schools are State-aided parish schools.
Even in Sweden, since 1994, the government has offered a universal voucher system for primary and secondary education that allows families to choose among public and independent schools. There, the voucher is worth the average cost for a place at a state school. Restrictions prevent private schools from charging fees in excess of the voucher value—and even from selecting students—in aim of ensuring equal access.
Perhaps Per Unckel, the former Swedish Minister of Education, said it best: “Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer—because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes.”
After decades of crisis, now is it’s time for an overhaul.
These incentive-based, performance-focused systems are not abstract or unrealistic. They are proven. They appropriately align the interests of students, teachers, and administrators. They empower parents and considerably improve student performance. They reward good teachers generously. After decades of unacceptable graduation rates and a diminished curriculum, maybe we’ll smarten up before it’s too late. The bigger question is, how many more young people will be left with nothing but drugs, guns, and violence because they don’t have the education, skill sets, and understanding to be able to CHOOSE their future – and their education – for themselves.
This is the civil rights issue of our time, and it would be an unconscionable betrayal to turn our heads—like we’ve done every other year.