Education Reform: One-Size-Does-Not-Fit-All

Published June 27, 2016

Lately, education scholars at Washington, D.C.-based, nominally conservative think tanks have spun themselves into a tizzy about the education reform movement’s splintering into quarreling factions.

Who knew such a monolithic movement existed? Even among strong advocates of parental choice, lively arguments have raged for decades over vouchers versus tax-credit scholarships, with each side arguing its proposal is the most powerful and/or practical way to empower families. Debate is healthy in a democracy, is it not?

Thinking in terms of a single, cohesive agenda is perhaps more common in Washington, where think-tankers attend each other’s seminars and flock to government briefings. Why should any of this matter to the folks back in Grapevine or Grand Forks? Because advocacy from think-alike think tanks may influence policy in their school districts.

Within these inner sanctums, there is concern about contrary ideologies intruding. In a May 25 essay, Thomas B. Fordham Institute Fellow Robert Pondiscio controversially observed, “Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism.”

As an example, Pondiscio reported conservative reformers “feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence” at a recent meeting of the New Schools Venture Fund in San Francisco. He fretted about leftists aggressively promoting a new orthodoxy on issues of race, class, and gender within the context of education reform while excluding conservative ideas. But what is wrong with having the gumption to debate the reform newcomers instead of acting as though your side owns this turf?

Speaking of taking ownership, the long-time CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen, issued a 22-page “manifesto” on June 15 — under her byline — seeking to reframe choice-based reform in terms of “innovation and opportunity,” as though those objectives are new“This is a clarion call,” she announced in the opening sentence.

Much of the manifesto deals in great detail with the level of tolerance for semi-autonomous charter schools within government-controlled school systems over the years. There is nothing about the tremendous promise of the next-generation voucher, the education savings account, and there is little about a steady increase in states adopting private-choice programs and the phenomenal growth of homeschooling.

Allen’s manifesto expresses frustration that “our efforts to drive change have hit a wall. The reality is that more was accomplished in the first nine years of the education reform movement than in the past 16.”

That reference is to the pace of states adopting strong charter-school authorization laws since 1991. Some states and localities now seek to drag charters back under a regulatory umbrella, and that legitimately concerns advocates. (Of course, charter schools are far from constituting the entirety of the education reform movement.)

Charters have helped thousands of families find a tuition-free alternative to conventional public schools, and that is a good thing. However, because charter schools operate within the governmental system, the nature of the larger, controlling agenda becomes relevant.

In that connection, the manifesto actually laments the demise of the federal No Child Left Behind law because it helped set the bar for student proficiency and defined the terms of accountability. The manifesto goes further and hammers the debate over Common Core as a “distraction” that “has drained our collective energies and focus on students.”

Actually, the parents across the nation who have stood up against nationalized standards being imposed on their schools are entirely focused on students — their children and their neighbors’ children. And they see clearly that Common Core uniformity and true choice in education are incompatible. The manifesto is likely to deepen their suspicion that choice becomes problematic when linked to an agenda imposed from the top down.

So, what is the clear call for action, the clarion call? Its name is the New Opportunity Agenda, the tenets of which are to be “innovation, flexibility, opportunity, and transparency.” The ideas discussed include drawing on new educational technologies, starting new schools, allowing public funds to follow children to schools of choice, and reporting test data in ways that can show how schools and districts are performing.

The prospect of yet another agenda being developed by Washington insiders and passed down to the people may excite some who call themselves “education reformers,” but a different kind of reformer will argue for families having the freedom to pursue their own agendas for their children — with their individual decisions contributing to a vibrant marketplace that reshapes the face of U.S. education.

Even though there is not a single education reform movement, there are ideas on which agenda-driven and liberty-loving advocates may agree. They should be able to talk with each other — and even welcome social-justice warriors to the conversation.

[Originally published at the American Spectator]