An Article from The ECONOMIST
The freedom to teach
WITH Republican control of state government now firmly consolidated, Mississippi is poised for wholesale education reform. In his state-of-the-state address in January, Governor Phil Bryant proposed a robust, if rather familiar, basket of reforms: expansion of the state’s current (and highly restrictive) charter-school laws, merit pay for teachers, and higher standards for teacher training. More controversially, Mr Bryant proposed allowing students to enroll in schools outside of the district in which they live (so-called open enrollment), as well as privately-funded scholarships for students to attend private schools. With the exception of these last, the proposals have been enthusiastically embraced by the state legislature.
The question is whether they will work. Some charter schools have proven successful and the much-touted KIPP programme has produced marked improvement in test scores for low-income children. The worst fears of sceptics (that charter schools would siphon better teachers and better prepared students away from traditional public schools; that the result would intensify economic and ethnic segregation) have not been realised. But taken as a whole, school choice has failed to produce across-the-board improvements in student learning.
So why does school choice retain such widespread, and fairly bipartisan, support? One reason is that charter schools are more cost effective than public schools: that is, they produce about the same results for less. That helps state governments deal with harsh budget environments. But it also undermines the effectiveness of the schools themselves. Charter schools are often funded at lower levels than traditional public schools, they hire younger, less qualified, and less experienced teachers, and they suffer from much higher turnover rates.
Under these conditions, charter-school performance is impressive, but points to a failing in the original conception of school choice. Milton Friedman, the Nobel-winning economist, sought to limit the role of government and introduce market-based reforms to the public-school system. By increasing the choices of parents, Friedman no doubt expected to see improvements in outcomes. But his focus was on how education is administered and financed, not on how it is delivered. And the basic fact about all education is that it is teachers who teach.
The gap in Friedman’s thinking (he did not claim expertise in education) has been filled with a woeful misconception: that innovation and creativity are the product of fear and insecurity. Education reformers attend to the discipline of the market, imposed by school choice, and the necessity of firing failing teachers and closing failing schools. While this makes sense, market mechanisms tell us only….(read more)