As the battle over reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act rages on, school reformers are spending as much time arguing against one another as they have combating the teachers' unions and suburban school districts vehemently opposing it. Advocates of standards and accountability, who have shaped the six-year-old law, rightly argue that it is forcing public schools to confront their longstanding problems. Conservative and libertarian reformers such as the Cato Institute, who have long compared No Child to Soviet-style central planning, would rather expand voucher programs and other forms of school choice.
Reformers, however, fail to consider two questions: Are parents even convinced that the nation's public school system is broken? And do they really want school reform? There are no clear answers to either one.
Parents seem to agree that schools are a mess. In a 2007 survey of parents by the Gallup Organization and Phi Delta Kappa, 84 percent gave public schools overall grades of C or lower; only 63 percent of parents rated the schools so woefully three years ago. But the fact 89 percent of the nation's students still attend traditional public schools suggests that most parents aren't dissatisfied with the status quo.
Charter schools have blossomed, with 4,000 of them operating in about 40 states, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But they attract just 1 million students, or two percent of all students attending school. As seen last week in Utah, voucher programs also haven't gained much ground.
Meanwhile battles in Pennsylvania and Maryland over proposed exit exams, which would require high school students to pass the tests in order to graduate, show that standards aren't also fully embraced. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Hess points out, standards provoke opposition among parents because it is their families that suffer the costs, including extra homework and failing grades. The pressure they apply, along with that from elements of the education establishment, forces state officials to water down the requirements to the point where they're almost meaningless.
So school reformers must win over parents to make gains. Not an easy task.
The proliferation of charters in cities proves that urban parents have some appreciation of choice. But their vision is limited because living in poor neighborhoods means higher prices for goods and services, limited product choices, and fewer shopping options. Given such an environment, the average black parent can't fully imagine a functioning marketplace in education featuring choices such as the KIPP brand of back-to-basics charter schools and so-called "international baccalaureate" or global schools.
As for middle-class parents? Consider a story reported in the Wall Street Journal last year: White families are fleeing the school district in Cupertino, California, so their children can avoid competition against better-performing Asians. Clearly, those parents are not chiefly concerned with rigor. And parents may worry less about their kids' scores than they do about the timing of the tests: In states such as Vermont and Indiana, parents complain that fall testing schedules lead to earlier opening school days, cutting into vacation time.
This lack of concern extends to teacher quality. In low-poverty schools, there is a 65 percent probability that the parents would pick a teacher more concerned with satisfying students over the one who got kids to hit the books, according to a study by University of Michigan researcher Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University.
Academics are not necessarily the main concern even within the homeschooling movement, one of the few areas of school reform that's arguably been a success. Despite breathless stories about homeschooled children winning the National Spelling Bee, just 16.5 percent of parents surveyed by the Education Department cited academic dissatisfaction as a reason for keeping their kids out of traditional schools. Most parents home-school out of concerns about school environment and to provide religious instruction.
For middle-class parents, vouchers and charters are unappealing because they have already exercised choice -- in the form of buying pricey homes in suburban neighborhoods. The idea of poor students flooding their schools is therefore unappealing. If they are looking to add academic rigor to their children's education, they can already do so, from the tutoring services offered by firms such as the Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan division, to educational toys, trips to museums, and learning software.
For many, maybe most parents -- especially those with money -- academics take a back seat to lifestyle and aspirations: social climbing, career boosting, exposing their children to diverse cultures. School reformers will succeed on a broad scale only when they offer proposals that address such considerations along with academics. One idea: Teaming up with real estate developers to create "educational villages" in which young middle-class parents can send their children to school in the daytime, drop them off for babysitting at a child care center in the afternoon, and take them to the park on weekends. Matching school reform to lifestyle may actually help activists achieve their ultimate goal.
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