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Education Crime Wave?

American public education has hit a new low: concerned parents are being arrested for stealing free public education through zoning fraud. From the WSJ:

In the last year, parents in Connecticut, Kentucky and Missouri have all been arrested—and await sentencing—for enrolling their children in better public schools outside of their districts.

These arrests represent two major forms of exasperation. First is that of parents whose children are zoned into failing public schools—they can’t afford private schooling, they can’t access school vouchers, and they haven’t won or haven’t even been able to enter a lottery for a better charter school. Then there’s the exasperation of school officials finding it more and more difficult to deal with these boundary-hopping parents.

From California to Massachusetts, districts are hiring special investigators to follow children from school to their homes to determine their true residences and decide if they “belong” at high-achieving public schools.

Via Media doesn’t endorse criminal activity – but neither are we enthusiastic about the current state of America’s public school system. When parents feel they have to cheat for their kids to have a decent education, something has gone unacceptably wrong.

There is no single magic bullet solution to what’s wrong with our schools. Decentralized experiments, competition and innovation are part of the answer. The charter school movement shows great promise, and while for-profit schools and homeschooling co-ops are not without problems, they also have had some successes.  The teacher unions have more often blocked reform than helped it along, but at the end of the day education reform doesn’t work without teacher participation.  We have a lot of experiments still to run.

Let a thousand flowers bloom is the Via Meadia approach at this point in the country’s search for education quality at a price we can afford. Ultimately we think the solution may be a system in which parents armed with vouchers can freely choose among competing alternatives ranging from parochial to charter to private to public schools.  Good teachers and administrators will be highly valued and well rewarded; others will look for different lines of work.

Achievement tests and other benchmarks would be seen as a floor and not a ceiling in the kind of system we need.  Teachers would teach through and past the tests rather than to it.

A system like that will take time to build, and it is likely that each of the fifty states, and many cities and towns within those states, will develop unique approaches as they work to enable excellence in individual classrooms and schools.

In the meantime, we need to see school zone fraud for what it is: the real offenders aren’t the parents trying to get the best for their kids.  The biggest offenders are those who stand in the path of school choice.  More vouchers and more choice will lead to better schools and less crime.

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  • WigWag

    As sad as this story is, Professor Mead fails to see the real irony here. The parent from Ohio was arrested for trying to get her children into a better school but not only is that school a public school, it is a public school where the teachers are unionized (represented by the American Federation of Teachers).

    There is nothing particularly unique about the fact that the women mentioned in the article was trying to improve her children’s chances in life by fraudulently trying to get them admitted into a unionized public school; in fact most of the best elementary and secondary schools in the United States are both public and unionized. New Jersey, for example, has the best schools in the nation (as measured by standardized achievement tests); it’s public schools are also the most unionized in the nation.

    The record for both for profit and not-for-profit charter schools is mixed at best. Parochial schools consistently deliver an inferior educational experience; Catholic schools in particular fail to do as well as public schools in terms of how their students compete on standardized
    tests. What makes the tepid performance of charter schools and the poor performance of parochial schools so surprising is that generally they get to chose their students while public schools have to take all comers. When students enrolled in charter or parochial schools turn problemmatic, they can simply be expelled. Public schools don’t have that luxury.

    The school in Ohio that the women wanted her children out of was a unionized public school. The school she wanted her children admitted to was also a unionized public school. One school was supposedly poor; the other school was supposedly good. Undoubtedly the union protections afforded to teachers in both schools were probably almost identical. In light of this, the difference in the two schools can’t be accounted for by the fact that they are unionized; other factors must spell the difference between excellence and failure.

    Intelligent people would understand that the Wall Street Journal article should be taken as a parable; the quality of the education offered by schools has little or nothing to do with whether or not those schools offer teachers union protections. Those, like Professor Mead, who insist that teachers unions insure that schools will provide a poorer education than they otherwise would are not really interested in the facts; actually they are not really even interested in promoting quality education.

    It’s not kids they care about, it’s about promoting an ideology where school teachers and other workers have all the protection of serfs.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Wigwag: is saying that parents should have a lot of choices the same thing as saying there should be no public schools? is saying that teachers should have the same job protections as most professionals saying they should have the rights of serfs?

  • Anthony

    WRM, American public education has problems generally at many levels; renewing public education will be difficult (many vested interests). One important aspect of any public eduction curriculum (elementary level) is reading and its effective instruction ought to be accessible anywhere in United States (without stealing free public education). Reading ability embraces the multiple skills one needs in order to become effective in public/private/sectarian education at all schools.

    So without looking for “magic bullet”, any American parent ought to be able to enroll their child at public school where the readiness to write and speak well via reading is fundamental as a dimension of education. Failing public schools ought to be required to meet that minimum level of curriculum instruction; then, in my opinion, zone constrained parents would not feel so compelled to cross boundaries – and WRM’s other proposals can be considered for acceptability and effectiveness as we seek ways to improve America’s public education delivery process.

  • John Barker

    “Good teachers and administrators will be highly valued and well rewarded. . .”

    How does one price superior service? Who gets access to the top quartile of teaching talent? How does a student’s intellectual ability factor in what a teacher can accomplish? I think you may wind end with a system where the best teachers work with the most capable students.

  • Scott

    Your mind is a potent and clarifying power for good. That does not mean, however, that you can’t use occasional help from the peanut gallery.

    As one who is both a strong believer in public education and a strong believer in its need to reform, I greatly appreciate your interest in improving the education of our young. Yet I am still not convinced that you have a very healthy understanding of what is and is not the nature of the system you want to improve. You, better than most, have shown the importance of defining a problem before trying to solve it. However, you write as though our education system is in shambles when the reality is that every day there are millions of students getting an excellent, well-rounded public education throughout our country.

    Can it be better? Without question. Are there millions of students getting a lousy education? Absolutely. But to address “public education” as though it were some monolith is to show a basic misunderstanding of the situation. To call for “decentralized experiments” as though that were new is to show what seems to be a lack of awareness of all the different school districts and all the different schools within those districts and the competition among them.

    Public education needs to fundamentally evolve. But as with all things that evolve, it needs to retain the successful aspects of what has made it thrive while unloading those that have lost their meaning or are no longer effective. You will always get the many who despise public education to cheer every post you make about the need to change. Public education lacks many things but one thing it does not lack is critics. You will start helping to effect change when you recognize the good that is being done within public education.

    In reality, we tend to unnecessarily complicate things. I suspect it comes down to, as it always has, a well-trained and motivated teacher with adequate support. The trick is in defining “trained”, “motivated”, and “support” and having the flexibility and means to do something about it.

  • Peter

    “The biggest offenders [of poor schools] are those who stand in the path of school choice.”

    Thank you, Mr. Mead. You have just indicted — and properly so — the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) for crimes against America’s children.

    If more opinion shapers called the teachers unions out, things would get better faster.

    Keep it up, Mr. Mead.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Government Monopoly sucks, it can’t be fixed no matter what the big government politicians tell us, it can only be limited in the damage it does as our founding fathers taught us. It simply lacks the feedback that competition provides to the free enterprise system that makes it continuously improve quality, service, and price. There doesn’t seem to be any way to provide this competition derived feedback into the Government Monopoly, beyond what our founding fathers created with the checks and balances of divided government and periodic changes in personnel with democratic elections.

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead, you ask,

    “…is saying that parents should have a lot of choices the same thing as saying there should be no public schools? Is saying that teachers should have the same job protections as most professionals saying they should have the rights of serfs?”

    The problem is that even a cursory examination of what you’ve said about teachers, teachers unions and public education in just the past few months demonstrates a tendency to blatantly exaggerate how poorly American public schools are doing and how responsible teachers unions are for what you claim to be that poor performance.

    You’ve accused teachers unions of putting the interests of students last. Specifically you’ve said,

    “Teachers unions that protect and institutionalize poor performance are hurting students…” (September 23, 2011)

    You’ve implied that most of the problems faced by the American education system are the fault of teachers unions. You’ve remarked,

    “The teacher unions as presently organized are more often part of the problem than part of the solution…” (September 23, 2011)

    You’ve insulted the elected representatives of American teachers by calling them names far more severe than anything you’ve said about the Wall Street types that practically caused capitalism in America to collapse. Do you remember this little gem of yours?

    “…smug union leaders no longer have the ability to preserve their members’ benefits.” (September 19, 2011)

    While what you say about member benefits may be true, who is it that should be accused of being smug?

    But smug isn’t the worst thing you’ve called teachers, you’ve gone much further than that. For the crime of wanting decent salaries and health benefits and a comfortable retirement, you’ve actually accused teachers of “waging a war against the young” (see your post dated August 25, 2011)

    And when you weren’t accusing them of being smug or waging a war against children, you’ve suggested that teachers unions deliberately put children last. Specifically you’ve said,

    “The charter school movement has exposed the fallacy in this argument to increasing numbers of Black parents by showing that the dysfunction in urban schools is not simply a problem of money. It is also a problem of incompetent teachers who can never be fired, of dysfunctional work rules that give senior teachers a viselike grip on choice assignments, it is a whole system that all too frequently puts children last.” (January 26, 2011)

    Perhaps you reached the height of hyperbolic hysteria when you called the blue state schools the “shame of the nation” based on a ridiculous little article that you read in Newsweek. (June 20, 2011) The comments on that post made clear how foolish your assertion was but I don’t recall you admitting that you had gone too far.

    The article from the Wall Street Journal that you wrote this post about doesn’t verify what you’ve said in numerous posts about teachers and teachers unions, it contradicts what you’ve said. The woman in question was trying to move her child from a unionized public school that was a poor performer to a unionized public school that was successful. Because the union protections afforded by both school systems were almost certainly very similar, this tends to disprove your proposition that excellence in education is hindered by teachers unions.

    I tend to view people who say that they like teachers but dislike teachers unions with about as much skepticism as I view people who say they like Jews but dislike Zionists. I suppose it’s possible, but I think the views of those who make these claims need to be scrutinized very carefully.

    The reason teachers are not treated like Serfs is because they have the protection of trade unions. By the way, even non-union workers benefit from unions because their employers, for fear of being unionized, often offer salaries and benefits comparable to what unionized workers get.

    If teachers unions disappear it is highly likely that not only will the salary, benefits, retirement options and working conditions of teachers deteriorate so will the education received by students. Public and private schools alike will be highly incentivized to replace experienced teachers with young, inexperienced teachers who cost government or profit making corporations far less. Young, inexperienced teachers are invariably far less competent than their more experienced peers just as experienced doctors and lawyers are far superior to their younger colleagues. It may be possible to create a system where local governments or other entities that run elementary and secondary schools are not incentivized to race for the bottom in terms of the quality of the teachers that they hire, but whether or not this can be achieved is in serious doubt.

    As for school choice, personally I think the First Amendment should preclude government money in the form of a voucher or a direct subsidy from funding religious schools. I am not in love with the idea of my tax dollars supporting underperforming Catholic Schools (or over performing Catholic Schools for that matter). Nor do I cherish the idea that if we allow government funds to flow to Catholic Schools we need to allow those funds to also flow to Salafist Muslim Schools where some of the things taught to students will probably be odious to most Americans. Simply put, I think Thomas Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he advocated a separation between church and state.

    I am all for a nuanced discussion of public schools, Professor Mead. Some of what you say about public education is true, even if you exaggerate how lousy American education really is. I agree that we need to bring technological improvement to lower costs in the service and governmental sectors just as we have in the private sector.

    The problem is that your language about middle class teachers and the unions that protect them, has been anything but nuanced; it’s been inflammatory at best and downright hostile at worst.

    But the real problem is that so much of what you’ve claimed to be true is based on little or no data at all.

  • Luke Lea

    Speaking of our public schools, this is why I read Steve Sailer:

    From a teacher …

    Commenter / schoolteacher Maya explains:
    What educators do IS important. It allows people to concentrate on their jobs while someone else supervises their kids’ educational progress. Sure, you could do it yourself just like you could give yourself haircuts, administer shots to your family and fix your own car. None of it is very difficult to learn. However, a society functions better if people specialize.

    Most teachers I know don’t want more funds allocated to education. You are confusing us with upper administration (because that’s how they get paid). Teachers yell about funds because they aren’t allowed to even hint that the problem might lay with the kids and their families. What most teachers want is a different distribution of funds as well as a different work environment.

    I can do my job in any old room with a chalk board and a set of textbooks. Heck, I’ll buy all the creative supplies since I’m used to it already. You can take away my smart board, but can you, please, hire someone to supervise the detention room? (Can we have a detention room?) Hire 10 of these people; I’ll take a pay cut. Also, I deserve every second of my vacation time and more. However, if we could take all the special kids out of the regular classrooms, group students by ability, end social promotion, allow failing grades and put violent criminals somewhere else, I don’t think I’d need two and a half months to recover. Two weeks would probably suffice.

    In conclusion, you are right. Schools aren’t magic. They are just places where kids go to learn stuff. Just showing up won’t change anyone’s life, won’t make up for shitty parenting or fix mental issues/emotional trauma/violent nature. And, as you said, having access to quality education (as ALL Americans do) won’t stand in the way of one’s dream of ending up in jail.

    However, schools are still important and educators aren’t the enemy. I’d say we are the biggest victims of this politically correct bullshit. Have you ever been locked in a room with 30 kids who are at 8 different grade levels, some completely illiterate, more than a few initiating fights right in front of you (or through you) and several with severe disabilities and emotional issues? Imagine those kids ignoring you because their parents don’t care what they do, the school doesn’t allow any disciplinary actions other than calling the parents, the children know that they will pass no matter what and any peep from you about the kids’ behavior is interpreted as prejudice. Imagine being required to make a lesson plan for every level of ability, learning style and disability, every day all the while knowing that the kids will probably not even attempt the work because they know they don’t have to. Then, imagine knowing that you’ll be blamed for the test scores while you bribe the kids with candy to stay awake, at least, during the high stakes tests. (Half of them will still fall asleep and hand in their test booklets without attempting several sections.)

  • intercesser

    There is a magic bullet , Dr. Mead . Simply have the money follow the student to whichever school that the student’s family chooses , as is done in Europe .This will , of course , emasculate the school authorities , but it will greatly empower the taxpayers . We must be emancipated from the domination of the teachers’ unions and their allies .

  • Charles Hall

    Prof. Mead fails to note that Connecticut already has voucher programs in much of the state, allowing a choice of public and independent schools. But individual school districts decide whether or not to offer vouchers, and the schools that get the voucher money can not charge additional tuition. All the schools participating are unionized. Vermont and Maine have similar programs.

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