By Larry Lee
Contrary to what many think, miracles still happen these days. In fact, one just happened in Alabama concerning public education—though no one seemed to notice.
I refer to recent news from the Alabama State Department of Education that four schools formerly on the “failing” school list were removed because of their improvements in test scores.
(The Alabama Accountability Act requires that ALSDE rank all schools by test scores and declare those in the bottom six percent in three of the last six years be designated as ”failing”.)
So why was this a miracle?
Because the leadership of the legislature says the only way to improve public schools is by taking money away from them to help private schools and creating charter schools to make the “education marketplace” more competitive.
Their reasoning is that schools are like businesses and they either become more competitive or go out of business. By their logic, it was impossible for these “failing” schools to get better unless they were competing against a nearby charter. And since Alabama does not have any charter schools at this time, this logic turns out to be, well, not so logical.
Dr. Brittany Larkin recently joined the faculty at Auburn University. A native of Florida and a special education teacher for ten years prior to getting her doctorate, Larkin’s dissertation was a comparison of charter schools and traditional schools in Florida.
She does not buy the “competition” line of thought. “To believe this would really work, you first have to assume that the schools being compared are identical, she says. “Of course, this is no more true than assuming that all houses in a neighborhood are identical. This reasoning is like saying that the football teams at Auburn High and Auburn University should be competitive with one another because they both wear shoulder pads.”
Larkin also notes that parents seldom pick a school for their child based totally on reading and math scores. (According to the Alabama Accountability Act, “failing” schools are judged solely on reading and math scores.) Parents look at a number of factors; what is the makeup of the student body, where is the school located, do they have a good music program, can my daughter play softball there, do they have a specialized curriculum, etc?
Larkin’s research also shows that Florida charters spend considerably less that public schools for classroom instruction, while a sizable portion of the budget for charters operated by for-profit management firms is spent on marketing campaigns.
“When we’re told that parents vote with their feet,” says Larkin, “we need to be aware that these parents are often the target of intense advertising campaigns conducted by charter schools.”
This is borne out by the fact that Florida gives public schools a letter grade and data shows that a large number of students switching from public to charter schools leave a school with an A rating. So it is impossible in such cases that a student is leaving a public school for a better performing charter.
In her most recent best-seller, Reign of Error, the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch states “The principals of competition and choice sound good, because they echo what we expect when we shop for clothing or automobiles. But competition among schools for students does not improve the quality of education.
“People shop for their shoes and their jeans and their homes, say reformers, why not shop for their children’s school? Competition may produce better shoes and jeans, but there is no evidence that it produces better schools.”
No doubt the faculty and students at Lafayette Eastside Elementary in Lafayette, Pickens County High in Reform, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in Huntsville and Westlawn Middle in Tuscaloosa agree with her.
These are the schools removed from the “failing” list and they did it because of their own initiative and hard work—not because some politician said they needed competition.