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Does school choice “work”?

It depends on what you mean by “work,” according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess in a new, long piece for National Affairs. It’s an interesting, mildly wonky essay that is worth reading in full, but one point stands out: It’s hard to say whether or not school choice is working because we haven’t really implemented choice in ways that would allow it to work. More specifically, if we allowed school systems to run as a marketplace might — where failing schools lose dollars if kids are pulled out — instead of promising a steady level of funding despite failures, maybe we would see more success. As Hess puts it:

[R]eformers should foster genuine competition by arranging markets so that there are real consequences for competitive failure or success. One simple step would be to ensure that all of the dollars spent on students follow children when they change schools (the notion implicit in efforts to promote “weighted student funding” systems). Such a reform would entail stripping school districts of their hefty subsidies and of their monopolies over local school facilities. It would mean overhauling contracts and statutes that protect teacher jobs and seniority-driven pay scales — practices that leave school and district leaders without the tools needed to reward good teachers and penalize mediocrity. Real consequences for enrollment loss could help push educational leaders to start taking enrollment and parental preferences seriously when evaluating employees and doling out bonuses.

There’s more interesting stuff in here as well, especially regarding the way we talk about school reform. Instead of treating it like a regulatory matter (as we did with the airlines, the phone companies, etc.) we are treating it as a matter of “rights.” This, Hess argues, is a mistake — a mistake that you see echoes of in the recent ruling in Los Angeles that changes how tenure works. There, it was argued that firing teachers solely based on the amount of time that they’ve spent in the system was wrong because it gutted schools in poorer neighborhoods, thus denying the children there the right of a stable education, or some such. This “solution” dances around the real problem: tenure itself. Eliminating tenure, however, is a regulatory issue, not an issue of rights, which makes it hard to discuss due to the way the education reform debate has evolved.

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Hess is one of the smartest education writers around, and his piece is sure to stir up some debate.

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