Robert Pondiscio Is Creating a False Battle Over School Choice

Fordham Institute's Robert Pondiscio is at it again, sowing discord in the education reform community by pitting public charter and school voucher supporters against each other. Virtually every line invites argument.

He sets up a false battle line between, "Those whose preferred flavor of school choice emphasizes charter schools, strong authorizers and performance-based accountability versus those who think the ultimate control should rest with parents." I'm pretty sure there is a lot of overlap between these two groups of people.

He frames the central question as, "Whether we trust poor parents to exercise [choice]." I think charter proponents trust parents, but some of them are justifiably less trustful that private schools share our commitment to equity.

Pondiscio suggests most people make school choices based on something other than "evidence," listing, "religious faith, ideology, self-interest or simple preference." Lacking any evidence, he simply asserts that, "It's a safe bet that school culture, class size, curriculum, art programs, sports teams, facilities and the like weigh more heavily than test scores."

I am sure these are relevant factors for many parents, along with safety, but I also know that 50 million people visit the Great Schools website each year looking for a school and one of top things they click on is test scores. Apparently, "evidence" counts for some people.

He goes back three centuries to argue that "self-interest" is the driving force behind much of society's progress. Well, so is collective interest which goes back at least 100 centuries to the dawn of agriculture, so let's not get carried away with the free-market argument. Even Donald Trump thinks government should intervene in markets now and then.

He suggests that, "Parents voting with their feet is at least as sound an accountability scheme as any driven by standardized tests." I'll half agree but if "sound" is the goal, the combination of the two is better. Plus, it's the law.

He says, "Testing and other forms of 'evidence' might be used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it." In fact, testing does inform choice but it's unclear how testing limits choice, except to identify low-performing charter schools to close.

Then he escalates, asking rhetorically, "Are poor parents incapable of acting in their children's self-interest?" I've seen some choice opponents make this insulting suggestion but I have never seen charter advocates do it.

He calls on reformers to demonstrate a "healthy dose of humility," before saying, "Decades of rising standards, test-driven accountability and an expanding role for charter schools...have generally underwhelmed." Most reformers I know, with the notable exception of our incoming voucher-fan-in-chief, are positively oozing humility but might take issue with his blanket dismissal of reform.

To make the case that parents are "deeply unhappy" with test-based accountability, Pondiscio links to two of his own opinion pieces about opt-out and test prep. There's no question many parents are frustrated with over-testing, but the opt-out movement is limited to just a few places, and surveys show that parents support testing. They want to know if their kids are on track and testing is one way to show them.

He argues that, "Education reformers don't have nearly as strong a case as we should," which I concede but it's still much stronger than the opposing argument. Lately, choice opponents stopped talking about educational quality and instead make the weak case that money should not follow the child because the system can't adjust to enrollment changes.

Just half a dozen paragraphs after guessing it's a "safe bet" that "evidence" does not drive choice, Pondiscio declares it absolutely: "affluent parents...choose schools not on 'evidence' but on personal prerogative." What changed while he was writing the piece?

He then quotes a parent advocate theorizing that some charter supporters oppose vouchers because they fear the competition for limited resources. Actually, many charter supporters also support vouchers. Maybe I missed it but I don't recall any charter supporters opposing vouchers because of competition for dollars.

He continues with another false set-up pitting, "Reform technocrats and accountability hawks versus parents," and ups the ante with class warfare lingo: "Americans have had just about enough of their betters deciding what's best for them." He's certainly right about that but it didn't start with this election and I'm not sure education reformers are exhibit A.

Pondiscio closes by encouraging reformers to, "Help parents choose wisely, rather than trying to police their choices by means of aggressive accountability schemes."

Well, requiring schools to administer one reading and math test a year and to do something--anything--to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools falls far short of an "aggressive accountability scheme." If anything, the new federal education law allows many schools to ignore achievement gaps.

And, helping parents "choose wisely" is exactly what Great Schools, Ed Navigator, Families Empowered, Innovate Public Schools, and other reform organizations are doing. Policing, on the other hand, is what Pondiscio did last spring when he tried to suppress discussion in reform circles about racial injustice.

Given President-elect Trump's stated desire to radically expand school choice, a robust debate about charters and vouchers is needed and welcome, but let's begin by remembering that movements grow through addition, not division. Manufacturing a battle between charter and voucher supporters doesn't help the school choice movement or kids.

This post originally appeared on Education Post.

Photo courtesy of The Englewood Montessori.