Been there, done that, Mr. President

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For Chicagoans who have been working to overhaul their public schools, the core of President George W. Bush’s education plan is largely a case of “been there, done that.” We’ve tried annual testing in kindergarten through 8th grade. We’ve tried improvement plans and penalties for schools with low scores. And, for all practical purposes, we’ve tried allowing children to transfer to any school in the system that will accept them. These policies have led to some improvement, but we’re still a long way from having the schools our children need and deserve.

As Chicago has learned through its repeated stabs at accountability, the main reason for school failure is that principals and teachers have not been trained and supported to meet the needs of low-income children. Bush’s proposal for a short-term infusion of extra money at a failing school, bundled with the threat of losing funds, will do nothing to rectify this fundamental problem. Individual schools cannot improve the pool of principal candidates or make the conditions of teaching and professional development attractive enough to lure more and better people into the field, let alone into the most distressed schools. But school districts and universities and state education agencies can. They could use the help of a White House bully pulpit and federal financial incentives to create model programs.

Some of the President’s proposals nibble at the edges of upgrading the profession. For example, money from a reading initiative would bolster instruction in the early grades. States and districts would get more flexibility in spending the professional development dollars they get from Washington. And teachers would get a $400 tax deduction for spending their own money on supplies and training, which many routinely do. The savings won’t change anyone’s life style, but the recognition is a much needed boost for morale.

However, the most prominent proposal in Bush’s education plan, a narrowly targeted voucher, is at best a distraction from the cause of school improvement. Under it, students at perpetually failing schools that receive federal Title I money would be permitted to leave those schools and take $1,500 in Title I money with them to another school—public, private or parochial—or a tutoring program. “When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options,” Bush declared. But he went on to say that no school would be required to take any of these ill-served children. So much for meaningful options.

Pity the advisors who have to supply the details for this idea and come up with answers to basic questions about fairness and efficacy, questions like:

What if there is no good school nearby that will accept a child?

What if the only accepting and accessible school is one centered around a religion that the child doesn’t share? What about children who already are paying tuition at a non-public school to avoid a failing public school? What do you do about the children who can’t get out of the failing school or choose to stay?

Mayor Richard M. Daley had it right when he said, “If we get into the voucher thing, everybody is going to position themselves, and they are going to scream and yell for the cameras, and nothing is going to get done.” Potentially, though, there is a silver lining to the screaming and yelling. If voucher opponents press voucher advocates to go beyond sloganeering and, instead, to make their most intellectually rigorous case for how vouchers would work to improve schools— the ultimate goal— the public no doubt would come to see the complicated issues of school improvement more clearly. And that would be a service to low-income children and the schools they attend.

ABOUT US The Catalyst edition of “City Voices,” a public affairs program broadcast from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. Sundays on WNUA-FM 95.5, has a new voice. Managing Editor Veronica Anderson is taking over as host for the program’s discussions on education, held the second Sunday of the month.