Charter Schools and Vouchers Were Supposed to Be the Magic Bullets to Improve Education. but Nobody Has Yet Found Any Evidence That Either Idea Is Working. (America)

Article excerpt

A chapter in my forthcoming book What Americans Don't Know bout Themselves will undoubtedly be on education: OECD figures out a fortnight ago again confirmed that American schoolchildren perform woefully compared with those of most other western societies (including the UK). There are currently a record-breaking 47.2 million kids in US public (ie, state) schools, but such is the dissatisfaction that more and more schools and educational plans are splintering off into sometimes dangerous experimentation -- with wild results.

A year ago, the buzzword in education was "vouchers", which gave the parents of pupils in poor schools a lump sum, usually ranging from $1,250 to $3,700, to divert to private education. In most cases, they change to Catholic schools -- the vouchers would not go far in conventional private schools. Currently, 15,000 children use vouchers to attend private schools, mainly in Cleveland, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the state of Florida.

The idea has supporters on both left and right. The left likes the idea of helping poor children to escape bad schools; the right likes to help the poor to help themselves. But parents who used vouchers to move their children found that public schools paid for hidden extras that private ones do not, such as school lunches and transport costs. In Jeb Bush's Florida, a quarter of the kids who were signed up for vouchers this school year have already found themselves back in the public system. Teachers' unions say vouchers take money -- as well as the most promising pupils -- out of the public system just where it is needed most. A Rand Corporation study, however, decided that "the conclusions of neither side in the debate can be sustained".

Magic solutions for America's education crisis thus come and go with bewildering speed, and so it is with the "charter schools", too. This experiment started in Minnesota in 1992, leading ten years later to the existence of 2,357 such schools with 600,000 pupils. In Washington, DC, as many as one in ten children attends a charter school. Charters are normally run by private companies on behalf of parents, teachers and other groups -- and in return for accountability on finances and educational standards, the companies get public funding. Last year, the Bush administration gave $2m to charter schools; in the new year that is expected to increase to $3m.

Supporters boast of smaller class sizes, better curricula and empowered teachers and parents, but again the jury is still out. …