School reform in a nutshell

Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of Education Sector, summed up the current debate over school reform quite nicely in a Q&A last week with Kyle Stokes of NPR’s State Impact Indiana.

Responding to a question about Indiana’s school voucher system, Colvin said: “You’ve really got a struggle here between folks who think the market is king and those who think good, common schooling experiences are important for democracy.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has put himself on the “market is king” side, not only with his support for private-school vouchers and more charter schools, but with his rhetoric. In his State of Education address this month, Bennett insisted that Indiana will improve education through “freedom, competition and accountability.”

Of course, it’s human nature to like it when the invisible hand of the market scratches your back, and to be upset when it slaps you in the face.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Bennett was peeved when Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White said recently that IPS would withdraw support from sports, band, choir and other extracurricular activities at the four schools – Emma Donnen Middle School and Arlington, Howe and Manuel community high schools– that the state is taking over and handing over to “school turnaround operators.”

White’s rationale: IPS will now be competing with those schools for students. Why should it provide activities that make the turnaround schools more attractive to students and their parents?

White said in an open letter to the community that he was dropping the idea of suing the state over the school takeover decisions. Instead, he said, IPS will focus on an effort to “create additional quality educational choices for students” through more magnet schools and programs.

In other words, if the state says competition is the key, bring it on.

White’ stance on extracurricular activities makes sense. The turnaround operators – for-profit EdisonLearning and Charter Schools USA and nonprofit EdPower – will apparently be awarded the state funding that would have otherwise gone to IPS for the support of the schools.

In Indiana, state funding typically pays for the bulk of extracurricular costs, including the salaries of coaches, band directors, etc. (Athletic ticket sales can help pay for uniforms, game officials and equipment, while upkeep of facilities is normally split between state funding and a school district’s capital projects fund, which is supported by local property taxes).

Why shouldn’t the turnaround operators be expected to provide their own extracurricular attractions, if they’re getting the state money that normally pays for such amenities?

And if Bennett truly believes that competition is the key to better schools, maybe he should welcome a competitive attitude from the IPS leadership.

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