What Are a School Board's Responsibilities?
The U.S. is unique in its local control of education. At its heart are school boards that have the power to set policy and then monitor its implementation ("School superintendents have no contractual obligation to improve learning," Brookings, May 4). That's why the controversial events unfolding in West Hartford, Conn. are drawing attention ("Plan for a Chinese academy stirs worries in a Conn. town," Boston Globe, Apr. 27).
Faced with declining enrollment, school officials there see salvation in an offer by a Chinese company, Weiming Education Group, to build an international academy in town. These students would then be enrolled in local public high schools, paying thousands in tuition to the school district. Weiming would also purchase the University of Connecticut's 58-acre satellite campus for $12.6 million and convert it into a school.
Weiming is not new to the scene. It educates 40,000 students on 42 campuses in China. Since 2012, it has been sending some students to study at high schools in the U.S. Students pay the company about $40,000, with the company then paying receiving districts about $10,000 per student. It's this interlocking arrangement for profit that is part of the opposition in West Hartford. But it was intensified when school officials learned that Weiming is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for possibly violating federal visa laws in a similar program it operates in Michigan.
What to make of all this? According to the Department of Homeland Security, a record number of Chinese students are already enrolled in both public and private elementary and secondary schools here. They rose 290 percent to 34,578 from 8,857 five years ago, according to the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security. So West Hartford is not alone. In fact, Chinese students now comprise roughly half of the 60,815 foreign students in U.S. high schools and the 6,074 in U.S. elementary schools ("U.S. Schools Draw More Chinese," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 2015).
Then there is the question of payment to the public schools that enroll these students. That is not unheard of either. The Chino Valley Unified School District in Southern California at last count enrolled 32 international students, mostly Chinese, charging them $15,500 apiece. (Under federal law, the districts cannot enroll such students for more than one year.) That's a bargain, since the cost of tuition at a private high school runs around $28,900. For American students it is about $20,440.
The point is that there is a definite precedent for enrolling Chinese students in public schools in this country and for them paying the schools. (Whether Weiming is guilty of violating visa laws is entirely another issue.) The more fundamental question in my opinion is the responsibility of local school boards. According to the Brookings study cited above, the "accountability dilemma" involves only finance and fairness.
Let's take a closer look at both. First: finance. In an ideal world, all public schools would be so attractive that few parents would consider enrolling their own children anywhere else. In that scenario, falling enrollment and the per-student funding that follows would not be a concern. But that is not the situation in West Hartford. As a result, the local school board is forced to look for a benefactor if the state legislature will not step up to the plate. It seems to be Weiming. Of course, underenrolled schools can be shuttered, but that is never a popular strategy.
Second: fairness. Although it's true that our schools have educated children from abroad before, they have never done so on such a large scale from any one single country. Even at the height of immigration during the last decade of the 19th century, public schools were tasked with educating students from many different nations. Therefore, it's hard to know if opposition in West Hartford is due to sheer xenophobia or to the commercialization of education.
If the former, it's worthwhile remembering that waves of newcomers to these shores have never torn the country apart, despite fears to the contrary ("A Nation Built for Immigrants," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 20, 2013). If the latter, it unfortunately appears that the school board has little choice but to accept the offer on the table if it expects to perform its duties.