Gambling on National Security

In confronting any other national security threat, the U.S. wouldn't trust unreliable and unproven solutions. Why, then, do some in the education sector insist we gamble on the privatization of our public schools?
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In confronting any other national security threat, the U.S. wouldn't trust unreliable and unproven solutions. We would go with what works. Why, then, do some in the education sector insist we gamble on the privatization of our public schools?

A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations, written by Joel I. Klein and Condoleezza Rice, rightly identifies a problem in our nation's education system, namely, that we are not educating our students well enough to maintain our country's economic vitality, international competitiveness or vibrant democracy. The report argues that this, in turn, poses a national security risk.

But simply encouraging more competition, choice, and privatization within our nation's schools, as Klein and Rice advocate, does not constitute the systemic, scalable or sustainable solution that our country needs or that the report claims to present. The dissenting opinions included with the report criticize the authors' policy recommendations for promoting a reform agenda that is based on inconclusive evidence and that fails to address the serious issue of inequity in education funding and opportunity.

In her dissenting opinion, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond notes that "the nation's largest multistate study on charter schools found that charters have been, overall, more likely to underperform than to outperform district-run public schools serving similar students." Voucher programs perform even worse in empirical studies.

More importantly, charters and vouches siphon badly needed resources away from our public schools and thereby undermine the institution at the heart of our nation's democracy. By neglecting to mention the negative consequences of school privatization, the report is pushing an agenda that encourages us to forsake our public responsibility to education and to deny public schools the resources they need to educate all of our children.

Nor do the authors' emphasis on Common Core standards or their proposed national school readiness audit alone represent viable policy solutions. Common core standards can be helpful if we also have a common core of resources to which each school and student is entitled. A national readiness audit can be helpful if states are also held accountable through "opportunity audits" that measure children's access to the resources they need to succeed.

If the Council on Foreign Relations needs an example of how the equitable distribution of resources, funding and opportunity can lead to high-achieving schools, it need look no further than the schools run by our own Department of Defense. The DoD's K-12 schools, which serve the children of armed-forces members, have consistently out-performed public schools on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress test, are better racially integrated, and have made far more progress closing the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers.

As Michael Winerip notes in a December 11th New York Times column, the DoD has achieved this not through privatization but through a decreased emphasis on testing and teacher ratings, smoother relations with teacher unions, small class sizes and giving parent service members time off to be involved in their children's school activities. DoD students also benefit from stability at home -- they have at least one parent with a job and access to health care and housing through the DoD.

If our nation's leaders are worried about national defense and the ability of our public schools to adequately prepare students to staff our military and diplomatic corps, they might want to reconsider their commitment to competitive, market-based reforms and instead take a policy leaf from our nation's defenders.

In the end, the national security crisis this report seeks to avoid may in fact be the result of flawed education policy coupled with the inability of our lawmakers to recognize that we already know what works. If we funded all schools with the same broad-based, equitable funding policies as we do DoD schools, there would be no crisis of lost opportunity.

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