Mak­ing their move: States leav­ing feds be­hind on school re­forms

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

A grow­ing num­ber of states are not wait­ing for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s lead in over­haul­ing ed­u­ca­tion. This year alone, 36 states have ei­ther passed or are con­sid­er­ing com­pre­hen­sive leg­is­la­tion on school vouch­ers, tax cred­its and other re­form mea­sures.

“It’s been a huge year for school choice [. . . ] and I think it’s go­ing to get a lot more in­tense,” said Robert En­low, pres­i­dent and CEO of the non­profit, non­par­ti­san Foun­da­tion for Ed­u­ca­tional Choice.

In­di­ana on April 27 passed the largest voucher bill in the nation’s his­tory. Within three years, 60 per­cent of the state’s stu­dents will be el­i­gi­ble for vouch­ers to at­tend charter or other al­ter­na­tive schools. The bill is not geared solely to­ward low-in­come house­holds or stu­dents in fail­ing schools, as is the case with sim­i­lar ef­forts in other states. In­stead, a fam­ily of four earn­ing up to $61,000 a year will be el­i­gi­ble. Repub­li­can Gov. Mitch Daniels is ex­pected to sign the bill into law.

Ok­la­homa has passed a broad school-choice pro­gram that gives tax breaks to busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als that do­nate to pri­vate-school schol­ar­ships. Stu­dents now en­rolled in pub­lic schools can get schol­ar­ships worth up to 80 per­cent of the av­er­age per-child cost statewide.

Ear­lier in Apr il, Ar izona passed an ed­u­ca­tion-sav­ings pro­gram that al­lows the par­ents of dis­abled chil­dren to with­draw them from pub­lic school and put the money that would’ve been spent at those schools into tax-free bank ac­counts. It can then be used for pri­vate tu­tor­ing, vir­tual ed­u­ca­tion, col­lege tu­ition or other ex­penses.

Voucher, schol­ar­ship or charter-school pro­pos­als are also on the ta­ble in Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio, Ore­gon, Ten­nessee and dozens of other states.

States are also ex­per­i­ment­ing with what should or should not be taught. The Texas State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion is mulling ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als that crit­ics ar­gue down­play evo­lu­tion and pro­mote the re­li­gious the­ory of cre­ation.

Lawmakers in some states, such as Alabama, Mis­souri and Ten­nessee, have pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to ban the teach­ing of Is­lamic Shariah law.

Else­where, newly elected Repub­li­can gov­er­nors have taken on teach­ers unions and pro­posed merit-pay sys­tems, de­signed to by­pass the tra­di­tional ten­ure model that of­ten al­lows in­ef­fec­tive teach­ers to stay on the pay­roll. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last month to link teacher pay to per­for­mance, not the length of ser­vice.

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker has drawn na­tional at­ten­tion — and con­stant ver­bal abuse from pro-union Democrats — for his plan to elim­i­nate col­lec­tive-bar- gain­ing rights for teach­ers. The leg­is­la­tion cleared the state House and Se­nate but re­mains tied up in court.

Across the coun­try, these plans are de­signed to im­prove school per­for­mance and give stu­dents more op­tions. Some states, like Arkansas, have bod­ies specif­i­cally geared to al­ter­na­tive ed­u­ca­tion.

“We re­search it. We do it [. . . ] and then tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion takes it on,” said Lori Lamb, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Al­ter­na­tive Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion and di­rec­tor of Arkansas’ al­ter­na­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram.

In the state’s Blytheville School District, a charter school runs a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sis­tant pro­gram for high school stu­dents. Rather than spend two years at a col­lege be­fore be­ing cer­ti­fied, stu­dents can spend two hours each day in a CNA class. If they pass the year-end exam, they’re el­i­gi­ble to get a job in their field.

“We have the abil­ity to make that sched­ule,” be­cause the charter school isn’t tied down by the same rigid course re­quire­ments of­ten found else­where, said Paul Stub­ble­field, the school’s as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal. While he stressed that stu­dents still take “nor­mal” classes in math, so­cial stud­ies and other sub­jects, they’re also able to de­vote ex­tra time to nurs­ing, culi­nary arts or other spe­cial­ized fields.

At the David­son County School District’s Ex­tended Day School in North Carolina, stu­dents pri­mar­ily take classes on­line. “Our teach­ers will as­sign con­tent [. . . ] based on how the stu­dents do. The teach­ers will pull those stu­dents and re­in­force the con­tent in a face-to­face for­mat,” said Prin­ci­pal James Fitzger­ald.

If the per-child cost at a charter or other al­ter­na­tive school is lower than the price at a tra­di­tional school, the left­over money can en­able cash-strapped states to re­duce costs.

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