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Back to Oct. Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 225 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS OCTOBER 2004

New Policies Shake Up Education Establishment
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Winds of change are blowing through many formerly hidebound public school districts around the country as officials experiment with a variety of ideas for how to improve educational outcomes.

Single-sex approach catches on

Single-sex public education is popping up around the country since the U.S. Education Department announced plans to change its interpretation of Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in schools. (See Education Reporter, April 2004.) At least 10 single-sex public schools opened this fall in five states — New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.

The number of schools offering single-sex classes has jumped from four to 140 over the last eight years. At 36 of those schools, at least one grade will have only single-sex classes this year. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8-25-04)

Advocates say the all-boys or all-girls atmosphere can improve learning by reducing peer pressure and preening for the opposite sex and by allowing teachers to focus on the different ways boys and girls learn. The National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union maintain that sex segregation is always wrong.

Voucher update

As school vouchers gain acceptance in some states, a new study commissioned by the pro-voucher Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation found that 63% of Americans favor allowing families "to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds." The Wirthlin Worldwide study stands in sharp contrast to the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll reporting, based on a differently worded question, that only about 42% of Americans support vouchers. (Wall Street Journal, 8-27-04)

Voucher programs received a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision that they do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, after which Congress acted to establish a voucher program in the District of Columbia. (See Education Reporter, March 2004.) Two studies were published this year showing that vouchers actually bring about improvement in the public schools that are forced to compete with vouchers. (See Education Reporter, May and July 2004.)

Over this past summer, courts in Florida and Colorado found voucher programs in those states in violation of state constitutional provisions. The Florida case is on appeal. Voucher supporters in Colorado have announced plans to introduce legislation in 2005 to fix a technical aspect of the voucher funding mechanism and thereby make it comply with the court decision.

Uniform trend

Uniforms for pupils continue to gain popularity around the country since the Long Beach, CA district adopted a uniform policy in an effort to curb violence. Crime dropped 22% there in 1994, the first year of the policy. Now, many large public school systems, including those in Chicago and St. Louis, have mandatory or optional uniform policies. At the request of parents, Belleville, IL is currently considering following the example of neighboring Cahokia and East St. Louis, IL.

Advocates say uniforms are cheaper, improve discipline, reduce peer pressure and keep students focused on school. Opponents complain of trampling on students' individuality. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has expressed concern about the "message" of conformity implied in a uniform policy. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9-9-04)

Florida 'basic schools'

In an effort to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, a Florida district opened three "basic schools" in August to focus on reading and math instruction. Using portable classrooms on existing campuses, the schools are designed to give students a transfer option required by federal law when their regular school misses annual improvement goals for two consecutive years. Classes are smaller and offer more individualized attention to students and parents. (Education Week, 8-11-04)

Outside management

One of the hottest new techniques is contracting with a private firm to manage part or all of a school system. Private firms typically have more latitude and incentive to use methods that work than public-sector education bureaucracies and teachers unions. Moreover, public school administrators traditionally have a background in teaching, not business management, resulting in a tendency toward unbusinesslike practices in some large urban school systems. Using private firms grounded in business methods has brought much-needed fiscal discipline and/or educational results to some districts, notably Philadelphia and St. Louis. (See article on St. Louis's successful experience with a turnaround firm.)

Philadelphia's public schools were taken over by the state two years ago. Edison Schools, a for-profit venture launched in 1992, was hired to manage 20 of the city's most-disadvantaged schools and is now credited with helping the city school system to post double-digit gains in reading and math proficiency and a tripling of the number of schools meeting federal No Child Left Behind standards.

"I've been in politics for 24 years and have never seen a system that has been remade as this one has," said state representative Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia). "What we've done here is force people to rethink the model for how education is delivered here." (Wall Street Journal, 8-25-04)

Charters focus on struggling pupils

Charter schools — public schools operating with separate management and without some of the restrictions applicable to regular schools — received some bad press recently when the American Federation of Teachers trumpeted federal Education Department statistics supposedly showing that charter students perform worse on average than traditional public school students nationwide. However, the fine print revealed that the test score gap between charter and public schools disappears when race is taken into account — and charter schools enroll a higher proportion of minority and struggling students.

Most states allow charter schools to form only where students are having difficulties, and charter schools are in many cases then asked to accept the most challenging students. (opinionjournal.com, 8-18-04) Thus, comparing the performance of charter schools to that of public schools nationwide is misleading.

Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby calls the American Federation of Teachers comparison of 4th-graders in a handful of states "not at all persuasive." In her own nationwide study, she found that charter students were 3.8% more likely to be proficient on their state's reading exam and 1.2% more likely to be proficient on their state's math exam than students in the nearest regular public school. These differences rise to 5% in reading and 2.8% in math when charter schools are compared to the nearest public school with a similar racial composition. In states where charter schools are relatively well-established, such as Arizona, California and Colorado, the difference is 7% to 11%. (Wall Street Journal, 9-29-04)

Research by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution indicates that over time charter students tend to make greater gains than students in regular public schools. It is telling that the waiting list for charter schools in Chicago has grown so long that most charters there have stopped actively recruiting. (chicagotribune.com, 8-18-04)


 
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