School choice equals higher accountability

Original item posted in Shreveport Times September 28, 2012

Thanks to leaders like Gov. Bobby Jindal, Education Superintendent John White and lawmakers, Louisiana is taking bold strides forward to improve the quality of education. And, as it relates to school choice, Louisianans are unequivocally supporting their efforts, as evidenced by the more than 10,000 applications received this year in the Louisiana Scholarship Program — exceeding State expectations by five times.

Yet, no good deed goes unpunished in this world and education reform is no exception.
The criticism from opponents is nothing new. It mirrors what Florida went through more than a decade ago. Reactionaries in the Sunshine State were misguided then and they are misguided in Louisiana today. Despite the murmuring of critics, parental choice and other reforms helped to transform Florida’s public education system for the better and it can do the same for Louisiana.

Florida lawmakers instituted K-12 reform in 1999, and efforts were rewarded with strident opposition from a vocal minority. Die-hard skeptics grew increasingly isolated, however, as Florida’s childhood illiteracy rate plunged, high-school graduation rates improved and the number of black and Hispanic students passing advanced placement exams tripled. There is still much more to do in Florida, but the progress is undeniable.

Louisiana reform skeptics should take care not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Rather than resisting reform, Louisianans of all backgrounds should be working together to maximize opportunities and achievement for students. Louisiana’s public school system will enjoy much brighter days once parents routinely match the needs of their child with the strengths of their schools. Successful education reforms include a variety of strategies to increase parental involvement in the education of their children. All of the major reforms in Florida, from grading schools to curtailing social promotion to expanding digital learning opportunities, contained strategies for getting parents more involved. School choice represents the most fundamental involvement strategy of all.

The rhetoric surrounding parental choice often becomes apocalyptic in tone, despite very clear evidence that it improves public schools.

Much of the Louisiana discussion has focused on the issue of accountability. Louisiana’s statute provides for student testing and includes strong mechanisms to remove under performing schools. This is a higher standard of accountability for private schools than the standard that applies to school districts in Louisiana, and across the nation. The bottom-up approach created by empowering parents to vote with their feet if their child’s school is not meeting their needs represents the ultimate form of accountability. No amount of regulatory compliance can hope to match a system of decentralized parental choice. Compliance models focus on school and grade level average results, while empowered parents focus on the particular needs of their child.

As the debate over reform continues in Louisiana, remember that a century from now the vast majority of Louisiana students will still be attending public schools. Nothing has been done that will change that basic fact. Students can and should attend their public school by choice rather than simply by zip code.