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Anna Karamazina

26.11.2022 15:00

Can political rivals discuss education in a respectful manner?

Campaign speeches, opinion pieces, and cable news programs are all filled with education concerns, but are these outbursts actually improving schools and teachers? If you try seeking for logical debates between opposing viewpoints that shed light on the smartest and most politically viable changes we can make to teaching and learning, you would hardly find any.

Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, got in touch with Luke Messer, a former Republican representative from Indiana and a member of the legal team of Bose McKinney & Evans, to start such a debate. 

Messer serves as the president of the nonprofit group Invest in Education, which campaigns for increased school choice. Mathews asked him whether he would be interested in talking through email on how to improve schools. Although they are at different points in the school discussion, like teacher unions, they are similar in various respects.

Messer and Mathews both support public charter schools, but Mathews frequently points out that only 1 in 4 of them outperform traditional public schools in terms of student success. While he believes that reform won't help us much, Messer advocates for government incentives to parents—often referred to as vouchers—to pay for private schools. They  decided to discuss these problems and see where it led.

What is known as follows. More than 80% of American students still attend normal public schools, despite the campaign by proponents of school choice to increase enrollment in charter and private schools. Despite criticism directed at some of the school boards in charge of them, studies reveal that most parents are satisfied with the education their children are receiving.

Given this, Messer was questioned about his opinion of the claim that loud parent complaints at school board meetings don't do anything. Although parents have the right to speak out, they sometimes lack the time due to their hectic schedules to get sufficiently active to make a difference.

Messer claimed that neither opposing teachers unions nor supporting specific political candidates is the goal of his organization. In order to allow families the greatest amount of freedom in selecting the ideal learning environment for their own child, he said, "Our goal is to expand school choice, all forms of school choice."

The use of vouchers, tax credits, and ESAs (education saving accounts) has increased dramatically during the past ten years, he claimed. About 246,000 children participated in private school choice programs in 2012–2013. There are roughly 700,000 at this time. There is currently support for private school choice in 31 states plus Washington, D.C. Over the past ten years, charter membership has increased by around 1 million children. Since the beginning of the epidemic, homeschooling has also increased dramatically.

He made no mention of the controversy about whether or how to educate racial and gender problems in the classroom. His company avoids talking about that. Mathews claims that political tactics that aim to enrage voters have a role in the education discussion, but it  has no impact on the quality of reading, writing, math, or other crucial classroom tasks.

The structural transformation in K–12 education that many of us have been advocating for would be made possible, according to Messer, if charter schools and private school choice programs were expanded even further.

That brings the conversation right down to the core issue. Messer contends that passing the Education Choice for Children Act (ECCA), which would establish federal tax credit scholarships for children who desire to transfer to private schools in all 50 states, would be essential to enhancing learning.

Meanwhile, Mathews argues that more would be required to enroll a large number of kids in classrooms where the instructors are eager to push them academically and provide them with the individualized attention they require. According to his comment,  the fact that established private schools have limited capacity for new applicants is one reason why the number of children attending charter schools has increased higher than the number utilizing private school vouchers.

There is plenty of capacity for additional private school kids with vouchers, Messer retorted. In only New York City and Philadelphia alone, he claimed, there are tens of thousands of vacant and open Catholic school seats.  He calculated that there are at least one million open spots in private schools nationwide.

The inability of teacher unions to halt the growth in charter school enrollment demonstrates their skill in making Democratic Party agendas more antagonistic toward those kinds of schools, but they don't dissuade parents who want to make a shift.

The most effective charter networks, such KIPP, IDEA, and Uncommon, have not only won over parents' approval but also significantly impacted traditional public schools. In the past two decades, those charter schools' decision to provide low-income students college-level high school courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate has encouraged a rise in enrollment at AP, IB, and Cambridge courses in conventional neighborhood schools. In 1998, just 1% of high schools had at least half of their students enrolled in 11th and 12th grade courses. That percentage had increased to 12 percent by 2019.

Also, ambitious leaders and teachers in traditional schools who are raising the bar for students seem unaffected by the anti-charter rhetoric of teachers unions.

On that, Messer and Mathews concur. The former commented that teachers from both parties have participated in educational reform in both red and blue communities. Principals and teachers who are passionate about their work may cast different votes on election day, but they all have a desire to question the status quo, fight for children, and stand up to the teachers union establishment opposing reform.

Messer makes a great point regarding the acceptance of, at the very least, the idea of school choice. He asserted that 80% of African Americans and Latinos favor freedom of choice. Republicans and independents are much more likely to favor school choice policies.

The rise in average achievement in American schools over the past few decades has also been attributed to an unacknowledged aspect of expanded school choice. In general, parents today are wealthier than they were 50 years ago. They now have more money to relocate to areas where they believe the schools are superior.

It's critical to encourage parents who want their children to attend better schools. Increased income is beneficial. More reputable charter schools and reputable private schools that accept tuition vouchers are also needed.

But as everybody understands, more is required to improve schools than only new federal legislation. Messer concluded the conversation by saying, "Admittedly, none of this is a silver bullet. Nobody has found the magic formula to triple student achievement."

Outstanding leaders who employ great teachers are what drive the majority of schools, charter or not, to success, he claimed. Partisan politics barely even exists.

Before the pandemic, our schools were improving. As American education gets back on track, we must rely on the educators who made it happen to continue. We need a rational debate of potential improvements, not a flurry of furious phrases.

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