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Education

CPI Holds Forum on Public School Choice

  • Jan 26, 2012
  • by CT Policy Institute

The Connecticut Policy Institute last week hosted a forum entitled, “Connecticut Education Reform: The Pros and Cons of Public School Choice.”  After brief introductory comments by CPI founder Tom Foley and Executive Director Ben Zimmer, the event featured a panel discussion with former Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Steve Adamowski, ConnCAN Vice President Jen Alexander, State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield (D, New Haven), and TFA Connecticut Executive Director Nate Snow.  Dennis House from Eyewitness News Connecticut moderated.

All four panelists agreed that additional public school choice is an essential component of a comprehensive school reform strategy for Connecticut.  The discussion focused on the benefits and drawbacks of public school choice, what specific things state government can do to facilitate effective choice, and how a choice policy can be tailored to address the concerns of those who are against choice.

A summary of the conclusions and policy recommendations coming out of the panel are below:

1) The values of choice.  The panelists focused the ways public school choice can improve school quality and performance by making school administrators accountable to their customers and thereby increasing pressure to meet student needs.  Dr. Adamowski noted that in his experience, parents who had chosen their child’s school were more invested in and committed to the school than parents whose children had been randomly assigned.

Interestingly, the panelists were less persuaded by arguments that focus on inter-district choice as a vehicle to promote socio-economic integration in schools.  Representative Holder-Winfield, for instance, stressed that while diversity is valuable “for its own sake,” he did not feel it is necessary for improved educational outcomes.  He said the notion that closing the achievement gap requires socio-economic integration suggests to low-income students that “there is something flawed with who they are,” and that frequently integration simply leads to “ghettos within schools.” The panelists also noted that there are thousands of high-performing high-poverty schools in the United States.    

2) Impact on Low-Performing Students. One frequently advanced argument against public school choice is that it the most talented and motivated students leave underperforming schools, saddling those schools with the most challenging and low-performing students.  The panelists challenged the presumptions behind this critique.  Dr. Adamowski said that in his experience overseeing a high-poverty school district it was simply not true that parents of the poorest students lacked the wherewithal to make the best choice, and that the view to the contrary is an “urban legend.”  Ms. Alexander pointed out that many of Connecticut’s highest-performing charter and magnet schools serve students of similar socio-economic and racial demographics as traditional public schools.

In response to this critique the panelists also stressed that public school choice must be accompanied by aggressive efforts to redesign or replace the lowest performing schools.  Mr. Snow, for instance, referred to New Orleans, which has an extensive school choice program and schools subject to choice that aren’t performing are being closed just as traditional schools were closed.     

3) Impact on Teachers.  School choice is often presented as being in conflict with teachers' interests, but the panelists stressed that choice implies options for teachers as well as options for students.  By encouraging innovation and diversity in educational models, choice programs allow teachers to find schools where the school vision lines up with their motivations and values as a teacher.  Ms. Alexander also cited research that in schools subject to choice programs, teachers receive better support and feedback that they need to grow in their profession.  Choice’s impact on teachers is frequently presented only in terms of stricter evaluations and accountability.  But it can also bring about new opportunities for promotion and constructive professional development. 

4) Long-term view.  All four panelists consistently stressed that Connecticut as a state needs to take a long-term view towards education reform in general, and public school choice in particular.  We cannot be focused only on the immediate horizon.

In particular, Dr. Adamowski discussed two phases of understandable opposition that accompany the introduction of school choice.  In the first phase, there is a “fear of the unknown” as underperforming schools are shut down, and students, parents, and teachers, lose a system that they understand, even if it is flawed.  In the second phase, students and parents begin to see the value of choice, but there are insufficient good schools from which to choose, leading to frustration.  But, he added, this second phase can ultimately accelerate the process of replacing lower-performing schools with alternative models by placing new pressures on policy-makers.  At the end of the day, this results in schools across the board of much higher performance and quality.  

5) Concrete Policy Recommendations.  The panelists cited a number of specific actions that Connecticut government should undertake to facilitate effective public school choice in the state.  One recommendation was that Connecticut must change the way it funds education.  Rather than funding schools, the state should fund students based on their learning needs at whatever school they attend.  Another recommendation was that Connecticut should do much more to encourage diverse educational providers, especially nationally recognized designs such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).  Finally, the panelists urged that for districts that do not currently have choice programs, the state should use various levers available to encourage them to introduce school choice.