School Reform Is Making Advances across America

I always like to report progress on a subject close to my classical liberal heart -- namely, the reform of our grotesquely dysfunctional K-12 public school system.

School reform (from a classical liberal perspective) involves at least two things: school choice (i.e., putting the resources for education in the hands of parents, not the educational bureaucrats -- preferably by vouchers) and school employee accountability (i.e., tying teachers' compensation to their actual performance).  Of the two, school choice is fundamental, because allowing parents and students to choose where they want the students to attend forces school administrators to worry about student retention, which in turn forces them to hold teachers accountable.

Two recent stories report some good news in school reform.

The first reports that recently, nearly two-thirds of states have increased oversight of teachers by such means as linking teachers' evaluations to student test results, or linking their pay to performance, or making it harder for them to get tenure.  Nearly half the states -- 23 and D.C., to be precise -- now use student test data to evaluate teaching effectiveness.  This number has grown from only 16 two years ago.  Moreover, 14 states allow test data to be used to fire teachers, and 11 states for tenure decisions.

This long-delayed move away from the dominant system (of teacher pay based on seniority, tenure granted routinely, and termination virtually nonexistent) is welcome, if too long delayed and rather tepid.  Really, there should simply be no such thing as tenure on the K-12 level (indeed, I don't like it even for college teachers).  In fact, tenure in K-12 was eliminated in Florida two years ago.  And Colorado allows teachers to get tenure after three positive reviews -- but they can lose it after two negative ones.

Naturally, the teachers' unions are fighting this bitterly, with lawsuits being filed in New York and elsewhere.  But the tide is turning decidedly.

Turning next to school choice, we have an interesting position paper from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  It reviews the progress Texas has made in liberating students from failing schools and offers some suggestions for taking reforms in Texas farther.

The paper rightly notes that "school choice" encompasses many mechanisms,  from charter schools to tuition tax deductions and credits to voucher schools to (a more recent trend) "virtual" schools, where students can access software on the internet.

The Foundation's report has useful information on all these areas.

Start with charter schools.  Texas has come a long way from 1995, when the state legislature first allowed charter schools, to today, when the state has 185 of them collectively enrolling 120,000 students.  This is an admirable growth, but there is much more to be done.  The collective wait list for these schools has exploded, from 17,000 students in 2007-2008 to 40,000 in 2008-2009, and to 56,000 in 2009-2010.  The problem here, as in other states, is that the vicious rent-seekers who oppose all school reform -- i.e., teachers' unions and their allies -- put a cap of 215 on the number of charter schools.

This cap obviously should be eliminated.  All the states should just let as many charter schools open as there are parents and students who want them.  However, moves to remove this cap failed in the last legislative session, and while the state has agreed to guarantee bonds to allow new charters, it jacked up the regulations on them (even though they are already operating under the broad control of the public school system).

The report does note the good news that Indiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee completely eliminated their caps on charters this year, and Florida passed a law making it easier for good charters to expand.

Turning now to vouchers, the news is less rosy.  In the most recent Texas legislative session, a quite substantial voucher program (the Texas Tax Payer Savings Grant Program) was introduced but never even made it out of committee.  It would have put Texas in the forefront of the school choice movement, but it was a bridge too far.  Vouchers are the most meaningful form of school choice, and thus they are fought most fiercely by the teachers' unions and public school bureaucracy.

Again, there is good news: both tax credit and voucher programs have spread recently elsewhere.  Just in the last year, Wisconsin expanded the Milwaukee voucher program, Douglas County in Colorado adopted the country's largest single-district voucher system, and Indiana introduced the country's largest statewide voucher system.  Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio also introduced or expanded voucher or tax credit programs.

Finally, the report surveys the newest mechanism for implementing school choice: digital/online/web-based learning.  It notes that just a few years ago, Texas created a state-run network called the Texas Virtual Schools Network (TxVSN), which currently enrolls about 8,500 students.

The report notes an interesting fact: as of 2009, over 450,000 students nationwide are utilizing web-based learning to some degree -- which is more than the total of all students in tax credit and charter school programs combined.  And more than 200,000 are enrolled fully in web-based schools.

Now, the report notes that there are some theoretical advantages to web-based instruction that attract school choice advocates.  First, because it can be done anywhere, you don't need to build new schools, or make students switch schools.  You don't have to worry about enrollment caps (as you do with charter or voucher schools).  And you can dramatically increase the variety of courses offered.

However, I see two pitfalls to virtual schools.  The report touches upon one but ignores the other.

First, as the report touches upon, web-based courses are often (even typically) offered in the regular public school system.  And that means you are allowing the rent-seeking special interests to control what is offered.

This means that the unionized teachers and administrators may use web-based instruction to co-opt school choice -- i.e., to keep kids in failing schools victimized by crappy teachers by now just telling the students to go online.  It is a worrisome sign that the teachers' unions don't oppose web-based instruction, whereas they deeply oppose more charter schools, viciously oppose tax credits for private school tuition, and maniacally -- nay, murderously oppose vouchers.

Second, web-based education looks suspiciously like another educational fad.  Many years ago, we were told that students watch a lot of movies, so showing movies (audio-visual instruction, as it was called then) was the key to effective teaching.  Then we were told that since students watch a lot of TV, television was the magic bullet against ignorance.  Then we were told that since every kid in America has a PC, why, computer-based instruction was the answer.  Now we are told that every American kid is using the internet, so...well, you get the idea.

One should always remember that in America's bizarre system, it takes two full-scale random-assignment control-group experiments to get a drug approved, but any education professor can devise some "new way" of teaching to be inflicted widely, with no rigorous testing of its efficacy.

Keep pushing vouchers.  Within a voucher system, one can easily allow cyber-schooling for those who want it.

Philosopher Gary Jason is a senior editor of Liberty and the author of the forthcoming book Dangerous Thoughts.

If you experience technical problems, please write to