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10 Questions About Our New Federal Education Agenda

Note: This week, Joshua Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International and veteran superintendent, will be guest-blogging. See his earlier post here. 

There's a scene from the movie Moscow on the Hudson that has stuck in my head since I first saw it 32 years ago (on VCR, kids, if you even know what that is). Robin Williams, playing a Russian immigrant, enters an American supermarket for the first time, heads to the coffee aisle, and finds himself confronted by a dizzying selection of brands. "Coffee, coffee, coffee..." he mutters, increasingly agitated, before collapsing to the floor, bringing a dozen or so cans of Folgers down with him. You see, he was accustomed to shopping in Soviet-era Moscow, where he had to wait in line just to get a single ration of generic, government-issue coffee. Now, as a first-time shopper in America, he was overwhelmed with options, the shelves offering brand after brand after brand. The celebration of individual choice, that hallmark of American civilization, had knocked him for a loop.

It appears that choice will be the cornerstone of our new federal education agenda, too, judging by President-elect Trump's campaign platform and Secretary-nominee DeVos's long record of activism on this issue. For everyone who cares about the future of public schooling, the question is, how will we respond? Will the new environment floor us, as it did Robin Williams's character, or will we take a deep breath and begin to ask serious questions about choice, its promises and pitfalls, and the complexity of judging its impact on entrenched public institutions?

I argue for the latter. This is no time to rehash old polemical debates about the principle of school choice. Rather, we need to confront the reality at hand, dig into the concrete details of specific policies and plans, look closely at the results, and get a better sense of the ways in which ordinary Americans understand the issues.

Choice in education is most often equated with charters and vouchers, and we at PDK have asked the public for their opinions about both. Our polling data suggests that, in general, Americans support charters and oppose using public money to pay for private schools. Below the surface, though, the data reveal many other nuances. For example, opinion is more or less evenly divided as to whether charters should teach to the same educational standards as other public schools (48%) or set their own standards (46%), but responses tend to vary by political affiliation: 58% of Democrats say charter schools should meet the same standards as other public schools, while nearly as many Republicans (57%) say charter schools should be able to set their own standards.

Not surprisingly, the data also reveal a correlation between negative perceptions of public schools and support for charter school autonomy. Among those who give their local public schools a grade of C or lower, a majority would allow charter schools to set their own standards; among those who give their local schools an A or B, most would hold charter schools to the same standards as other schools. Similarly, those who think that public school standards are too low tend to be more willing to grant charter schools greater autonomy. (See www.pdkpoll.org for full results.)

PDK will continue to tease out the details of public opinion on school choice, as well as to monitor changes in public opinion as the new Secretary of Education rolls out her agenda. However, polls can't tell us much about policy details, practices, and outcomes. So here's my wish list of questions for the field at large (and many of these have emerged in conversation with colleagues and friends; I don't claim to have come up with all of these questions on my own):

  1. What, exactly, is the theory of action behind specific proposals to increase choice in public education?
  2. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to make evidence-based policy decisions. So, what evidence will be used to judge the efficacy of voucher programs, charters, and magnet schools—all of which have offered some degree of choice for many years?
  3. How will this evidence factor into states' policy development process, and who will be involved in policy decisions related to school choice?
  4. While most charter schools are run by individuals or small operators, a number of charter management organizations (CMO) supervise networks of schools. Precisely how, and over what timeframe, do states intend to strengthen the operational and instructional capacity of existing CMOs? And if charter networks increase in scale, then how will they be similar to and/or different from traditional public school systems?
  5. What policies, regulations, and/or guidelines will be put in place to ensure that school districts can make reasonable and fair decisions about charter schools' use of public facilities? Or will districts be left to their own devices to make such decisions?
  6. How will states and districts determine whether or not it is viable to create charters or other school choice systems in a given area (e.g., in rural districts)? If they conclude that school choice is not an option, will that trigger investments in other strategies for school improvement?
  7. Will states and districts place specific limits on the kinds of educational choices that individuals can make? For example, will states waive graduation and/or credit requirements, so that students can choose their own courses? Should students be able to choose their teachers? Will federal and state policies make it easier for students and their parents to make choices among traditional public schools, including those that have entry requirements (such as "gifted and talented" programs)?
  8. Magnet schools have long been seen as mechanisms for increasing choice in public education, while also promoting racial integration and innovative educational programs. Will we see new federal, state, and local investments in magnet schools?
  9. Many families rely on local community organizations and agencies to provide students with after-school services near their home. If choice results in many students traveling long distances to attend school, then what will states and districts do to ensure that those kids can still access such services?
  10. What will states and districts do to hold charter schools and/or voucher programs accountable for their performance? When it comes to school choice policies and practices, what accountability metrics are most essential?

I'm sure this list is incomplete (and please feel free to email or tweet me if you have questions to add), but the larger point is that choice appears to be here to stay, and rather than fighting for or against it in principle, it's time to question the specifics and wrestle with the implications.

—Joshua Starr

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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