I’ve been planning to write for some time about the Republican effort to privatize public education in Montana, but it’s only tonight that I’ve had the time to sit down and really think about just how intellectually bankrupt Republican proposals for “school choice” in Montana really are. The truth is that what Republicans are proposing for Montana’s schools is more than a political stunt; if enacted, they would be a disaster for our students and our schools.
Montana Has Become a Battleground
A couple of weeks ago, Myers Reece at the Flathead Beacon wrote an important story about the push for privatized education in Montana. As many as 40 legislators from Montana attended an event in Missoula which promoted the “school choice” movement in Montana.
In practical terms, “school choice” means providing tax breaks for families who pull their kids from public schools, either to attend charter schools or private schools, both of which are far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts.
The Wild, Wild West of Public Education
Montana Republicans are absolutely sold on this model. It’s a part of their party platform, has been endorsed by Rick Hill with his typical dearth of specifics, and rears its ugly head every legislative session.
Of course, the bills proposed in the last session by Republicans Dave Lewis of Helena and James Knox of Billings demonstrated the same kind of care we came to expect from Republican legislators. Neither bill required that the “schools” involved be accredited or even schools, except in the loosest sense of the term. Neither required that the “schools” involved follow relevant federal and state regulations regarding education. Neither listed requirements about student-teacher ratios.
Given that Senator Lewis has already submitted a similar draft for the 2013 session and Rick Hill’s stated support for school choice, there is a real chance that Montana students could face the reality of a “school choice” atmosphere. What might it look like?
It Would Be A Failure and a Disaster for Montana Students
Probably the best reason to reject charter schools is that there is no evidence that they work. A Mathematica study of 2,300 students across 15 states found that “charter schools did not significantly affect most of the other outcomes examined, including attendance, student behavior, and survey-based measures of student effort in school.”
Despite claims of increased accountability, a study by proponents of charter schools found that few are ever closed for poor performance, despite claims that charters will be more accountable.
They even spend more money on administration than traditional public schools.
Unfortunately, it’s not just that charter schools would be ineffective and waste money. The kind of unregulated charter school/school choice Montana Republicans are pursuing would be a disaster for Montana students.
Perhaps most troublingly, private companies are likely to put profits ahead of actually educating children. In Michigan, 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit corporations and the experience of Florida demonstrates what that can mean for students. The Miami Herald reports:
By design, charter schools are unshackled from many of the bureaucratic rules of traditional public schools….
While this freewheeling system has minimized the oversight of school districts, it has given rise to a cottage industry of professional charter school management companies that — along with the landlords and developers who own and build schools — control the lion’s share of charter schools’ money.
At some financially weak schools, tight budgets have forced administrators to cut corners. The cash-strapped Balere Language Academy in South Miami Heights taught its seventh-grade students in a toolshed, records show. The Academy of Arts and Minds in Coconut Grove went weeks without textbooks. Schools have also been accused of using illegal tactics to bring in more money—charging students illegal fees for standard classes, or faking attendance records to earn more tax dollars, court records show.”
Even if private corporations won’t come to Montana, their terrible online schools certainly will. How about having your for-profit charter school conducted online with 60:1 student teacher ratios? The New York Times explored this model, exposing the very profitable K12Inc, which is “educating” 200,000 children nationwide. Unfortunately, that’s not working out too well for the states paying for this model or the students taking the classes:
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.
Another danger is that the kind of privatization Montana Republicans are calling for will lead to direct religious instruction at taxpayer expense.
Talking Points Memo offered an instructive example of what kind of education Montanans might receive if they fall for this scheme in its discussion of the Shekinah Learning Institute, which took $17 million to educate “at-risk children,” but spending a great deal of money on religious instruction and church expenses.
That Jeff Laszloffy is behind the movement for privatized education in Montana should make it clear that we can expect that kind of instruction in Montana, too, if Hill’s plan comes to fruition. Taxpayer dollars simply should not be spent to promote a particular religion or teach that evolution didn’t happen. Mr. Laszloffy’s children can call themselves “valedictorians” of the Laszloffy School all they want; Montana taxpayers just shouldn’t have to pay for the damage that’s being done.
Even when charter schools seem successful, the results are often illusory. How can a school or corporation inflate the academic results of their students? With a good old-fashioned combination of segregation, exclusion of students with disabilities, and misreporting data.
Professor Myron Orfield says that “ charters are an engine of racial segregation. They are more segregated than public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be,” and the available data support his claim.
Charter schools also have fewer students with disabilities, which is one of the ways they can do the most damage to public schools. Students with disabilities require greater resources, and if charter schools are allowed to restrict their admittance, pressure will increase on public schools.
Charter schools are more likely to being involved in dishonest test scores,
Not Here in Montana
Even former proponents of school choice have acknowledged that the movement seems based far more on over-promising results than actually achieving results for students.
“If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric.” Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as “stalled,” in part by the fact that many “new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally,” and in part because results in Milwaukee were not “as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped.” Likewise, Peterson argues, “the jury on charter schools is still out.”
As Frederick Hess notes, school choice programs probably do improve educational outcomes in urban neighborhoods blighted with terrible schools and decades of mismanagement. That’s simply not the reality in Montana, where despite Republican efforts to demonize teachers and public education, our students outperform the nation as a whole on every measure of educational outcomes, while spending less per student than many states.
There are certainly areas of improvement for Montana schools, but defunding them to pay for unaccredited, unaccountable institutions who are quite likely to put profitability and/or ideology ahead of education certainly isn’t a way to achieve better results.
It’s time for Montana Republicans to offer serious proposals for educational reform. We all want better schools. If Mr. Hill wants to be taken seriously as an education reformer, he needs to start telling us something substantive. Repeating catchphrases like “choice” and “freedom” is far from the mature and responsible leadership Mr. Hill is touting as the reason we should vote for him.