Day 12: Choice Now

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Countdown to World-Class Schools summarizes 12 actions the incoming governor can take to make our schools the best in the world. All achievable. All for under $50 million.

It’s fascinating to watch the “moral” opposition to school choice (even public school choice) of officials who’ve benefited from private educations or now send their kids to private schools.

Certainly, President Obama, Governor Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Murray and Ed Secretary Paul Reville all attended pretty special schools, and the President and the Governor exercise this option to school their own kids.

milton academy 2.jpgGood for them. But don’t parents who have less money also deserve a similar option? (At right is a picture of Milton Academy, where the Governor went.)

I say this not because I am a product of a private school. I’m not. Went to public schools my entire life, and my children attend public schools. But I’d like the option, and I think parents of kids in lower performing schools want that option, too. Especially in places like Boston—the highest cost large urban district in the country, according to data released this week by the federal government.

portsmouth abbey.jpg(At right is Portsmouth Abbey where Secretary Reville went to school.)

There are other political and community leaders who see choice as the equivalent of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” exhortation during the civil rights movement. That’s certainly the view of Anthony Williams, former mayor of the District of Columbia, and Kevin Chavous, a noted attorney, former member of the DC Council, and a national advocate for school reform. They see

  • Barely half of the African-American and Latino students who enter high school graduate…
  • Only 9 percent of District of Columbia students entering ninth grade graduated from college within nine years of beginning high school.

You can say the same thing of Boston, the highest cost large urban district in the nation. Williams and Chavous have some hurt words for opponents of school choice:

These naysayers—many of who are fellow Democrats—see vouchers as a tool to destroy the public-education system. Their rhetoric and ire are largely fueled by those special-interest groups that are more dedicated to the adults in the education system than to making certain every child is properly educated.

You can see more of Kevin Chavous speaking in Boston here.

Massachusetts was wise to test and prove a number of reforms that have worked. But while we have to advance these reforms energetically, how do you look a parent in the face and say, Well, for half a century we’ve been trying to fix the schools, so trust us. Your kid’s in the second grade, right? Just wait about six or seven years and we the adults will get this right.

Wrong. We need public and private school choice. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities (METCO) provides 3,000 Boston and Springfield students a chance to be educated in surrounding towns. Almost all METCO students graduate high school, and 90 percent go on to college. In Boston, there are five times the applications for METCO as there are seats.

METCO works for kids, so we should expand it. Surely, students from Brockton, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford and Randolph could benefit from a real option. We should also take the opportunity to improve METCO by requiring more transparency for the program and urging the administration to stop cutting funding for METCO. Over the past three years deep (not “press release” cuts, but deep and real) cuts in METCO have hampered the program.

st john pioneers.jpgThen there is private school choice. (At right is the emblem of St. John’s prep, where Lieutenant Governor Murray went to high school. Note that they play under the respectable name of “Pioneers.”) A survey of private schools in Massachusetts close enough geographically to serve inner city students demonstrated that the majority would be open to accepting students if offered a government scholarship between $4,500 and $6,500, or well below half the average cost of a public school education.

the blob2.jpgWhat holds up change is the combination of the remnant of 19th- and early 20th-century “Anti-Aid” and “Know-Nothing bigotry” against Irish Catholics and the interests of adults in the public school system (i.e., superintendents, school committees and union leaders—often affectionately known as The Blob). Combined, these two factors prevent any re-evaluation of Know-Nothing Massachusetts Governor Henry Gardner’s Anti-Aid amendment from 150 years ago, nor its update in 1917. We are after all a progressive state.

Other states have had success circumventing these restrictions on private school choice by creating a tax benefit to non-profits and corporations that offer scholarships to parents without means whose children are in schools they are not satisfied with. There are a few key components to making this work:

  • These would have to be tax credits to the poor, not tax deductions, which are not terribly meaningful.
  • Eligibility for charity scholarships would have to be based on need.
  • The value of the scholarships would have to come close to the cost of tuition, because they would be targeted at the poor.
  • In order to pass constitutional muster, the tax benefits would have to be available for both private school tuition and, for those students in public schools, high activity fees.
  • The state would have to provide a transparent regulatory framework and oversight to ensure that the money is used for the stated purposes.

But all those are details. The first step is to get a tax credit bill in support of private school scholarships passed.