Can political opponents have a civilized conversation about education?


Rage over education issues fills campaign speeches, op-ed pages and cable news shows, but are these outbursts making schools and teachers better?

I have been looking for reasoned arguments between people on opposing sides that illuminate the best and most politically possible improvements we can make in teaching and learning.

Not having found any so far, I tried creating my own. I contacted former Indiana Republican congressman Luke Messer, a partner in the law firm Bose McKinney & Evans. He is president of a nonprofit organization called Invest in Education, which lobbies for more school choice.

I asked him if he would like to have an email discussion about how to make schools better. We are similar in some ways but at different places in the school debate. He is unfriendly to teacher unions. With the exception of some of their political ads, I am for them since I remember what they did for my mom, a lifelong substitute teacher.

Messer and I both like public charter schools, but I regularly note that only 1 in 4 of them have better achievement rates than regular public schools. Messer promotes government grants to parents, often called vouchers, to pay for private schooling, while I think that reform won’t get us far. We agreed to hash out these issues and see where that took us.

Here is what we know. Despite the push by school-choice advocates to get more kids into charter and private schools, more than 80 percent of American children remain in regular public schools. Some of the school boards that run them are under fire, but surveys show parents are mostly happy with what their children are learning there.

That being the case, I asked Messer what he thinks of my view that raucous complaints by parents at school board meetings don’t do much good. Mothers and fathers have the right to speak out, but they have busy lives and usually lack the time to get involved enough to make a difference.

Messer said his group is not focused on fighting teachers unions or electing politicians of any particular party. “Our goal is to expand school choice, all forms of school choice, to give families maximum freedom to choose the best educational environment for their own child,” he said.

“Private choice enrollment — vouchers, tax credits, ESAs [education saving accounts] —have soared in the last decade,” he said. “In 2012-2013, there were about 246,000 kids in private school-choice programs. Today there are about 700,000. Thirty-one states plus DC now have some type of private school-choice support. Charter enrollment has grown by around 1 million kids over the last decade. Home schooling has also skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.”

Virtual charter schools see enrollments rise

He did not mention the fight over how or whether to teach issues of gender and race in schools. His organization of him does not get into that. I think that part of the education debate comes from political campaigns trying to make voters angry. It does nothing to improve reading, writing, math and other important classroom activities.

Messer said expanding charters and private school-choice programs even more “would facilitate the systemic change in K-12 education that many of us have been fighting for.”

That takes our discussion to the heart of the matter. He argues that a key to improving learning would be passage of the Education Choice for Children Act (ECCA), which would create federal tax credit scholarship for kids who want to move to private schools in all 50 states.

I say it would take more than that to put significantly more children in classes where teachers are motivated to challenge students with deeper lessons and give them the individual attention they need. I think one reason the number of kids attending charters has grown more than the number using private school vouchers is that existing private schools have limited space for new applicants.

Messer responded that there is plenty of room for more private school students with vouchers. “There are tens of thousands of empty and available Catholic school seats in New York City and Philadelphia alone,” he said. I have estimated at least a million private school places are available across the country.

The failure of teachers unions to stem rising enrollment in charters shows they are good at making Democratic Party campaign platforms more hostile to those kind of schools but don’t discourage parents who want to make a change.

The most successful charter networks, such as KIPP, IDEA and Uncommon, have not only pleased parents but have had a marked influence on regular public schools. In the past two decades, those charters’ opening of college-level high school courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate to low-income children has helped inspire a growth in participation in AP, IB and Cambridge courses in regular neighborhood schools. Only 1 percent of high schools had at least half of their 11th- and 12th-graders in those courses in 1998. By 2019 that number had risen to 12 percent.

Also, the anti-charter rhetoric of teachers unions appears to have had no effect on ambitious principals and teachers in regular schools who are making classes more challenging.

Messer and I agree on that. He told me education reform “has occurred in red and blue communities with teachers of both parties.” Energetic principals and teachers may vote differently from each other on Election Day, but they share a willingness “to challenge the status quo, fight for kids and stand up to the teachers union establishment opposing reform,” he said.

Messer makes an excellent point about the popularity of at least the concept of school choice. “Eighty percent of African American and Latinos” support choice, he said. Even higher percentages of independents and Republicans support school choice programs.”

Opinion Why are unions and Democrats so opposed to school choice?

I think there is also an unrecognized form of increased school choice that may be the most important reason for rising average achievement in American schools over the past several decades. Parents are on average more affluent now than they were a half-century ago. That means they have more money to move to neighborhoods where the schools seem better to them.

Messer and I agree it is important to support parents who want better schools. Bigger income help. So do more good charters and more good private schools with space for kids with tuition vouchers.

But we both know that improving the schools takes more than just new federal laws. At the end of our discussion, Messer said, “Admittedly, none of this is a silver bullet. Nobody has found the magic formula to triple student achievement.”

“What makes most schools, charter or not, successful are great leaders who hire great teachers,” he said. “Partisan politics plays almost no role.” I could not have said that better myself.

Our schools were making progress before the pandemic. We have to count on the educators who made that happen to keep going as American schooling gets back into shape. A reasonable discussion of what reforms might help is what we need, not angry buzzwords.

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