State Sen. Jeff Smith on Fixing Schools
State Sen. Jeff Smith writes about education reform in the St. Louis Beacon and touches on several different ideas. I agree with many of his statements, but I don’t know why he backs off from endorsing parental choice.
Smith mentions choice (“vouchers,” in his words, but he could just as well be describing tuition tax credits) in the opening of the essay, and comments that neither choice nor more funding will fix the school system. I’m with him on funding. Now, here’s how he defends his opposition to harnessing market forces in education:
Competition for competition’s sake doesn’t necessarily mean that kids will perform better in private schools or that surrounding public schools will improve. Plus, diverting public money to selective private schools can’t pass in the Missouri Legislature in the near future.
We see from places where choice has been tried that students do learn more, parents are more satisfied, and the public schools do improve. There’s no guarantee that will happen, but it’s highly likely. Perhaps Smith’s judgment that choice isn’t politically feasible here prevents him from considering it further.
Smith goes on to discuss KIPP charter schools and says that they prove choice isn’t the answer. The conclusion makes no sense, because families choose KIPP and can choose to go back to the traditional public schools if they don’t like it. KIPP is an example of choice that works, albeit on a smaller scale than a citywide tuition tax credit program.
Smith struggles to establish KIPP as distinct from other schools of choice:
KIPP schools are public schools that accept all comers on a first-come, first-served basis. They do not teach religion.
Not entirely true — KIPP students have to agree to KIPP’s policies or they’ll be turned away. And so what if they don’t teach religion? Not every private school teaches religion either!
Smith next praises the quality of teaching in KIPP schools and identifies it as the key to their success. He’s right, but he leaves out a crucial point. Good teachers can be found anywhere, whether in traditional public schools or in choice schools. However, choice schools tend to seek out those teachers, support them, and retain them, because they have to if they want to keep operating. Traditional public schools never go out of business, so they don’t face the same pressure to help their best teachers. Yes, at the classroom level, good teaching is what helps students learn — and that good teaching is encouraged by a parental choice system.
Smith goes on to describe some excellent proposals for merit pay, charter schools, and open enrollment. He laments the fact that politics stands in the way of these reforms with one of the best lines of the op-ed:
The first education hurdle Missouri must overcome is in Jefferson City.
My question for Smith is: Since even these proposals to inject a limited amount of competition into schools face opposition, why not support the equally maligned and potentially more beneficial tuition tax credits idea?