Educational Choice is Good Policy

Teachers unions campaign for local taxes because they believe higher taxes help students, even though research has shown very little correlation between per pupil spending and student achievement. Teachers even threaten to strike for smaller classes or fewer school days because, you guessed it, it’s for the children.

For decades, however, these same teachers unions have attempted to block the very policy that is first and foremost for the children: school choice.

At the crux of school choice is parental control, and parents know the educational needs of their child better than any government bureaucrat. Some students learn well in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, while others need supplemental teaching or opportunities outside traditional learning. Some of those opportunities include course access, digital learning, home-schooling or blended learning. Parents should also have the choice to move their child from low-performing schools using vouchers, charter schools (public and private), opportunity scholarships or educational savings accounts. Additionally, parents should be comfortable knowing their child is taught the most factual, relevant and rigorous curriculum available.

In Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) determines the public school curriculum. Student performance in the District is very weak, ranking among the lowest in the nation. Despite significant improvement from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, less than 20 percent of 8th graders are at or above the proficient level on the NAEP reading and math exams. The national average is 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

In response to low student performance, D.C. has developed public policy that encourages school choice and adopted one of the most comprehensive charter school laws in the nation. However, DCPS students continue to rank poorly when compared to their charter school counterparts. What are D.C. charter schools doing differently than DCPS? The answer is employing high-quality teachers. The District does not have an adequate policy that identifies and removes inadequate and ineffective teachers.

For example, an unnamed teacher in the DCPS system recently assigned 6th graders a simple Venn Diagram asking students to compare Adolf Hitler with former President George W. Bush. Not only is this assignment wrought with opinion, but it also downplays Hitler’s aggression and minimizes the atrocities of the Holocaust. Additionally, this assignment is not included in any DCPS curriculum, which begs the question: how does DCPS manage what is taught in the classroom? The DCPS did not catch this horrendous assignment, but rather a very concerned parent.

Rather than disciplining or removing the teacher, DCPS administration released the following statement: “The teacher deeply regrets this mistake, and any suggestion to malign the presidency or make any comparison in this egregious way. The teacher admits to extremely poor judgment and short sightedness and will apologize to students. The school will also send a letter home to families explaining the incident and offering to address any additional questions should they arise.”

Although DCPS students continue to show significant gains in performance, nationally, they still fall well behind their peers. While many factors contribute to low test scores and poor student achievement, public schools could start by addressing teacher quality issues. Instances like the assignment comparing Adolf Hitler to former President George W. Bush are just one example of the need for education reform and parental choice, and DCPS 6th graders are fortunate school choice is an option in their system.

Lindsay M. Russell  is director of the ALEC Task Force on Education.