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GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT THE SCHOOLS

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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MEANWHILE BACK IN THE STATES, THE "LABORATORIES of democracy" where most significant education decisions get made, almost 50 different reform strategies are at work. Some hew to systemic orthodoxy. Many, however, move in the opposite direction. Consider the 1,100 charter schools now operating, the publicly funded voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, another 50 or more privately supported voucher schemes, and the hundred or so public schools now managed by private firms. Even New York, for a long time the most centralized and union-dominated of state school systems, now has a passably serious charter law.


The state reform schemes that show the greatest promise are hybrid strategies: They meld ideas from the systemic warehouse with elements of competition and choice. That's what we see in Texas and Florida, in Michigan and Pennsylvania, in Arizona, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.


The hybrid approach says all schools in the state must attain the same standards in core academic subjects, and all students must demonstrate their mastery by passing the same tests, but everything else is up for grabs. Schools are essentially independent in their operations. They compete for students and resources. They make their own decisions about staff, schedule, technology, and a hundred other things. Dollars follow pupils to the schools of their choice -- and no pupil is confined to a bad school. Accountability flows in two directions: to public authorities, who set the standards and monitor the test scores, and to families, which are free to choose different schools if they conclude that it will help their kids.


Even as hybrid reform strategies gain traction in the states, however, Washington hews single-mindedly to the systemic approach. Such rigidity has become a drag on serious education reform.


Charter schools illustrate the problem. They're spreading like wildfire, with at least 400 new ones just this year. New York was the thirty-fifth state to pass the necessary legislation. They are hugely popular with parents -- most have waiting lists -- and early returns indicate that they're generally working well, both in boosting pupil achievement and in meeting the needs of children and families. Just as important, the competition from charter schools, for pupils and revenue, is spurring public-school systems to become consumer-minded.


How does Washington treat charter schools? With one exception, it pretends they don't exist. Uncle Sam entrusts his dollars to state and local education agencies from which charter schools must wrest their share if they can. (These, of course, are the very bureaucracies that, in most places, fought to keep charter laws from enactment, and that charter schools seek to escape.) The General Accounting Office has found that many schools don't know how to get these funds or are frustrated in their attempts to do so. That means low-income and disabled pupils in charter schools don't get the federal aid they would receive in regular public schools.


How can this be? Federal education policy today, as in 1965, recognizes only public school systems, not the refugees from those systems even though they represent the front lines of education reform.


The one exception is a special program of federal aid specifically for charter schools. The creation of this program was a typical Washington maneuver, and as such, it is a useful illustration of how the federal government funds and views school choice. Instead of adjusting existing programs to accommodate the new schools and their students, the federal government set up a thin stream of funding for charter schools alone. The program's modest grants are a boon to the founders of such schools, and boosters are glad it's there. But this assistance is nowhere near comprehensive. Furthermore, a needy student enrolling in a charter school must forgo all other forms of federal aid. The federal money that he benefited from while in public school never belonged to him; it belonged to the public school system and, although the student fled that system, Washington still sends it there.


Then there are the regulatory hassles and misdirected dollars. Today's infant charter school is apt to find that Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights crashing down on it if it tries to do "special" education differently. State efforts to ease the teacher quality crisis are confounded by Washington because it channels millions into traditional ed school programs. The "regional education labs" then waste more millions disseminating information, often about faddish, unproven instructional methods, as if educators still inhabited the pre-Internet world of 1965 when the "labs" were created.