Curricular Standards and Parental Choice Are Fully Compatible

Published April 1, 2008

The idea of a split in the school choice movement has fascinated the mainstream media recently.

Long-time parental-choice advocate Sol Stern got it started with a provocative article in the winter issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal arguing market mechanisms alone cannot improve public education. Reformers should seek a strong, content-based curriculum, as Massachusetts has done, Stern said.

Stern’s article described spirited disagreements between “incentivist” (choice and competition) and “instructionist” (curriculum and pedagogy) camps within the school reform movement. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among several media giants weighing in with critiques.

In excoriating Georgia legislators who seek an expansion of public charter schools to give children alternatives to failing public schools, the paper’s editorial board, in a February 17 piece penned by Maureen Downey, quoted the following Stern assessment of Massachusetts ‘ recent rises in test scores:

“The improvement had nothing to do with market incentives. Massachusetts has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools [emphasis added], and no market incentives for principals and teachers.”

Out With the Old

The editorialists condemned the “inordinate attention” given to Georgia charters, implying the current 71 charters enrolling 26,000 children statewide are enough, if not too many. They slammed state Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) for sponsoring a bill to create a state chartering authority that could authorize new charters when local school boards balk at the idea of in-house competition, as many do.

The paper even went so far as to accuse the legislators of wanting to “abandon traditional public schools.” Never mind that charter schools are public schools. Granted, they are untraditional, in that they can institute rigorous curricula (which Stern champions) that eschew whole language, fuzzy math, and ed school credentialing, and that parents and teachers are there by their own choice, not assigned by bureaucrats.

These editorialists assume tradition is a good thing when it means clinging to hoary, feel-good theories that have stunted American education and doomed countless students to a less-prosperous future.

Fuzzy Math, Indeed

Critical to the editorial’s point was Stern’s assertion that high-achieving Massachusetts has “very few charter schools.” One would suppose that a newspaper with as proud a tradition of truth-seeking as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution would fact-check that assertion.

In truth, Massachusetts has 59 charter schools, enrolling 23,000 children–figures close to the Georgia numbers that Downey et al. clearly deem more than “very few.” Moreover, among the 59 are some of the nation’s most effective and exciting charters, such as the City on a Hill Charter School in Boston, The Academy of the Pacific Rim in Hyde Park, and Mystic Valley Regional Charter in Malden.

Tests Don’t Lie

State departments of education typically are not big fans of charters and the competition they bring. Massachusetts’s department commissioned an independent study examining the performance of charter schools and the “comparison sending districts” (CSDs) on the state’s English and math tests from 2001 to 2005.

Statewide, when there was a statistically significant difference in test scores, “it is much more likely to favor the charter school than the CSD,” the August 2006 report concluded.

As a group, students in Boston’s 18 charter schools consistently outperformed those in traditional Boston Public Schools. Among African-American, Hispanic, low-income, and special-education subgroups, “charter school performance was statistically significantly higher than the CSD in each year since 2002 in both content areas.”

Does this mean charter schools were a bigger force for change than the content-rich state curriculum Stern lauded? No, but they clearly have been a positive force. And they could be an even bigger one–in Massachusetts, Georgia, and elsewhere.

Accountable Administrators

The alleged conflict between curriculum reform and parental choice is illusory. The real question is how enduring change in instruction can be achieved if education consumers do not have the power to hold the education establishment to account.

As University of Arkansas scholar Jay Greene noted in a January 24 City Journal response to Stern, a fortunate alignment of the stars brought such no-nonsense reformers as John Silber, David Driscoll, Sandra Stotsky, and Abigail Thernstrom to the helm of Massachusetts K-12 education in recent years. But now, as they depart, “there is a great likelihood that their accomplishments will steadily be dismantled by the new governor, Deval Patrick.”

Curriculum mandates shift according to how the political winds blow. But parental choice via charters, vouchers, tax credits, homeschooling, and other devices can serve as a steady counterweight.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.