Friday, March 21, 2014

A teacher-dad's thoughts on vouchers

My baby cousin messaged me last week to get my opinion on vouchers. Her college Econ class was discussing its impact on education, and she wanted my teacher thoughts! (Not so much a baby anymore, huh?). I will admit that I've always had a hard time connecting to economics, but from what I know, this is a great topic for a class discussion! Kudos to her Econ professor!

I will admit that my thoughts on the matter may be different than that of most teachers. As a teacher, I work hard to be the best, and expect the best of those that work with me in my school. I believe that I work in the best middle school in our area, and it would be foolish for any parent not to send their kiddo to learn with us. That said, if a parent thinks otherwise, why shouldn't they send their child to the school that is a better fit? Isn't learning about making kids comfortable, and teaching to their interests and strengths? If my classroom, or school isn't making a connection that will help a kiddo learn and grow, I think it is fair that the student leaves to go to the learning environment that is a better fit. I want to have that option for my own kids, and as a person passionate about opportunity for all kids, this just makes sense.

That said, we have to be realistic with what this means. I live in a small community. We are isolated in the center of Alaska, and even though we are the 2nd largest "city" in the state, our educational options are more limited. So, let's say we do vote-in a voucher system and everyone wants to use vouchers to go to our local Catholic school. The trouble there is Monroe is limited in space and resources. So, as demand goes up, and supply/space is limited the value increases. So, now this private school might have to raise tuition further beyond what the voucher covers to balance the demand, thus putting the school back in the same place it was (a school for the more financially secure). This is great for them, because maybe they can expand to take in a larger population of kiddos. But what if then the quality goes down? How will they manage the influx of students and maintain the high quality educational product? These questions apply to all of the private schools in our town.

Or, let's say my school's reputation becomes more widely known, and everyone wants to come to my school. Again, we have limited space, and we can't duplicate the success of individual teachers forcing others to be like us, because it's our unique personalities that make us the strong educators that we are. It's the leadership of our school that gives us the umbrella of comfort to teach our students the way we do. But, when our population increases compared to the other middle schools, won't they have to at least shift what they are doing? Won't their "product" have to improve? Isn't this creating a competitive edge that will start to drive improvement? Or at least shouldn't it?

In my opinion, the problem with education is that there isn't a worry about competition. Students in your neighborhood will go to the local school regardless of the quality. Unless, we throw down piles of cash to go to a private school, but that isn't much of an option for most of the population. Parents can also choose to stress about a charter lottery system to avoid going to their zoned school. In the end, many parents feel stuck. If we throw in a system that drives schools to work in the best possible way for the kids, then we will start seeing a shift in teacher quality, and more importantly education leadership. Principals will become more focused on mentoring teachers to improve the quality of the staff. Districts will have to start listening to what the parents are saying to understand what the community sees as the qualities that make a successful learning environment. If money is being thrown at private schools, then it would force the public education system to figure out why. Is it the lack of required state testing? Is the teacher quality that much better? How is it is better? If the vouchers are being applied to on-line education, how can our district better meet that demand? How can we better our value? Or, do we focus our efforts to be the best education option in another way?

All of these questions drive a concept of increased competition that, in my opinion, would lead to school reform and improvement. Schools would have to focus on what is best for the students from the kis' eyes and more importantly their parents' eyes. It's time to take away the idea that legislators and districts know what's best for all kids, and give that power back to those that truly know best, the parents.

I understand the issue of keeping state and/or federal money away from religious organizations. But this isn't necessarily about religion. This is about educating our youth. And if a community has an excellent school that is private and religion based, how can we say the dollars set aside to educate the kids in that district can't go to that school? We are giving recognition to a school for working at a high level, it just so happens that the school has a religious foundation. If the local public school doesn't like it, then it is up to them to buck up, and provide a better educational quality. A quality centered on students, and not on new standards and the test that supports them.

In the end, I spent over an hour catching up with my 20 year old cousin. Her opinions on education and life were so refreshing. I left our conversation knowing that if she represents even half of her generation, we're going to better off. We have to support opportunity for all kids to grow in learning environments that are best for them and their unique differences, instead of this one size fits all system. We both agreed that a little competition would be good for public schools, so I'm open for giving vouchers the opportunity to create that competitive spirit. And hopefully, help drive us to a better public education system.