A lot of words have been written on the topic of expanding educational options for American families and finding innovative ways of delivering schooling as a public good. I've written a fair number of words myself. But Michael Q. McShane's new monograph, Education and Opportunity, offers one of the most clear, compelling, and succinct cases for school choice I've encountered. Clocking in at just 79 pages, Education and Opportunity can be read during a short airplane flight and should be on the reading list of every educator, parent, and policy-maker.
McShane is an education policy research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which published Education and Opportunity as part of its Values & Capitalism series of research-based policy primers geared toward college students. Education and Opportunity argues that "a vibrant marketplace of education options is the most effective means of developing the schools necessary to meet the needs of students today and in the years to come."
McShane makes the case for the importance of high-quality education, not simply to the nation's economic and political stability, but for the well-being and livelihood of individual families. He notes the enormous disparities in lifetime income between high school graduates and drop-outs and how a college education is one of the most reliable tickets out of poverty.
But McShane argues that, despite this vital social importance, the institutional structures of schooling in America are failing to meet the mission of educating all children. He cites damning data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) demonstrating that achievement of 17-year olds has remained virtually flat for the last 40 years, despite enormous sums of additional educational spending and a growing economic demand for better schools.
McShane goes on to explode the most common policy solutions for what schools really need to improve, including more funding, smaller class sizes, and universal pre-school. Not that these proposals have no merit; McShane just demonstrates how research shows these proposals are not capable of bringing about deep, sustainable change in school performance.
McShane also notes that even the national movement toward standards and accountability, our most concerted effort at educational improvement, has garnered only modest gains in student outcomes and done almost nothing to close huge racial achievement gaps. The business of schooling is way too complex, McShane argues, to mandate one-size-fits-all improvement models that will work in every school. "To assume that anyone could formulate a package of top-down reforms that would be effective in the disparate regions of the country--whether to address accountability, teacher evaluation, busing, or other factors--is hubris incarnate," he writes.
A better solution, McShane argues, is to recognize that as a government-run monopoly, education in America will always suffer from the same kinds of problems that plague every monopoly, above all inefficiencies and an inability to respond to changing contexts and consumer demand. America's limited school choice experiments suggest a promising alternative, and McShane describes data demonstrating the overall positive student outcomes displayed by charter schools and school voucher programs.
I've written about charter schools elsewhere (here's a description of how they work - and why I support them) because of my involvement in Kentucky's fight to finally adopt this model that 42 other states have already embraced. School vouchers are the next level of school choice (not even on the radar in Kentucky), but involve giving each eligible family a tuition voucher they may use at various private schools approved by the state for participation. Policies on charters and vouchers vary widely from state to state, and while charter schools now serve 2.5 million students nationwide, the total number of families that are able to exercise school choice options remains relatively small.
And McShane argues that the current funding and governance structures of education place a huge limit on the impact that charters and vouchers can make.
Simply staying the course on voucher and charter programs as currently constituted will not create an education system that offers opportunity for all. School choice opponents often point to this as evidence that school choice is mistaken, but a more accurate assessment is that the system is incomplete. I would argue that the structure of school choice programs places a ceiling on their ability to effect large-scale change.
In my next post I will discuss the rest of McShane's recommendations, and offer some reflections of my own, especially as they apply to the Kentucky context.