By Noah Martin
Panelists at Education Nation, a panel on education policy reform held on Tuesday, September 20, discussed several of the most prominent debates in education today, finding agreement on a number of fundamental issues.
Moderated by Oberlin president Marvin Krislov, the panel featured several of the most prominent experts on education policy in Ohio, including Debra Simmons, editor-in-chief of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Lisa Snell, director of education for the Reason Foundation, and Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow for Innovation Ohio. Susan Zelman, former superintendent to Ohio Schools, was originally scheduled to attend but had to decline due to a family emergency. Education Nation was sponsored by Oberlin Young Educators, Oberlin College Republicans & Libertarians, and Oberlin College Democrats.
Panelists held starkly different visions of the future of education, which became evident with Krislov’s very first question, “What is the single most important change that should be made to public education?”
Snells and Simmons presented almost diametrically opposed goals in education policy. Snells insisted on the importance of allowing parents and students to choose how the government distributes the money it grants for the child’s education. In other words, each student’s family should essentially be granted a check for the amount of money the government is willing to spend on that student’s education, and allow the parents to decide how to use that money, be it public schools, private schools, or charter schools.
Snells repeatedly came back to the word “choice.” The most important aspect that needs to be addressed in the public school system is choice for the parents and student as consumers of education. Her argument is essentially based on free-market economics—if schools are forced to compete for the money of parents and students as customers, they will naturally improve in quality.
According to Simmons, the biggest change that needs to be made to public education is to increase diversity and further desegregate students based on class and race. This egalitarian view of public education as a public good, to be shared among citizens of all kinds, pitted in contrast with the view of education as a commodity to be bought and sold, exemplified one of the largest debates in education policy today.
Critics of Snells’s approach to education as a product have argued that it would further intensify distinctions of race and class. For instance, children whose parents work long hours or who can’t afford to pay for their child to take the SAT-equivalent of elementary school admission will not be able to provide their child with the same quality of education as parents who could. It also assumes that all parents will be educated “consumers” when choosing schools.
When asked about this, Snells replied, “If you have five parents that choose and decide to go to another school within the district, that historically low-performing school starts saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a lot of money. We’ve just lost $100,000 in one day because a few students left…’ They make these schools change their behavior.”
Whether or not that’s the way it would actually play out is a matter of huge dissension in the education world. But Simmons seemed to agree that many students would be attending other schools if they could. She pointed out situations across the country that continue to segregate races of children into different schools five minutes away from each other in this post-Brown v. Board of Education world, providing children with vastly different qualities of education.
Dyer’s response was less contentious. With approving nods from the two other panelists, Dyer explained that property tax should not be related to the amount of money provided a school in a certain area. The argument behind this is pretty clear if you examine how schools are paid for. As it is, some money is given from the state and the federal government, but much of the funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. This, of course, gives schools in locations of higher property values more money than schools in places with low property values, creating a strong correlation between income and quality of public school education in that area. All three panelists agreed that the distribution of funding for schools should be more egalitarian and not as strongly tied to property tax.
When asked about the merit of proficiency tests as an indicator of success for teachers and students, all of the panelists essentially agreed that while proficiency tests are an important part of measuring progress of a school system, they should not be as high-stakes as the Bush administration and, now, the Obama administration, have pushed them to be. High stakes tests, said Simmons and Dyer, encourages cheating and can actually lower the quality of education.
“Right now, how a district does on its report card will determine money. There’s a new bonus for districts that are rated ‘excellent’ or better on their report card. Districts that rated on the bottom five percent on their performance index score are now open to business from charters so they’re going to lose a lot of money from the state. It is becoming a much more high-stakes issues, which is why I think it’s important to make sure we’re using them correctly…Tying [test scores] in with pay and benefits is very problematic…Making things high-stakes, people tend to cheat,” said Dyer.
Krislov asked the panelists for their thoughts on Ohio Senate Bill 5 – the bill that put strong restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees, including schoolteachers. Snells viewed the removal of collective bargaining as “relief.” She provided the example of Los Angeles as a broken education system with collective bargaining. She also pointed out that the loss of the collective contracts following Hurricane Katrina improved graduation rates. She encouraged teachers and administrators to be “flexible” with the system as it is, saying the freedom you gain from removing collective bargaining can improve schools.
Dyer argued that this “flexibility” can occur with or without collective bargaining, pointing out that teachers frequently take pay cuts and pay freezes even in systems with collective bargaining. He also argued that the bill could discourage bright people from becoming teachers, and could hurt the pool of qualified teachers in the future.
For those not completely familiar with the ideas being discussed, it may have seemed to be a discussion filled with agreement and complimentary ideas. In fact, the panel displayed a wide range of views that are usually perceived as contentious; but in those basic understandings the panelists shared – the lowering of stakes of proficiency tests and the increased independence of public school funding from property taxes – we can begin to formulate and explore potential compromises and, ultimately, good policy.