Failure without Consequences for Public Schools

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” This common-sense aphorism, sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, aptly identifies the problem with the current level of state oversight of public schools. When a school or an entire school district fails to meet the state’s performance goals, there are no dramatic changes – just different government officials doing the same thing over and over again (and expecting different results).

The time has come to acknowledge that this process is insanity. In 1996, the legislature passed a law that purports to hold schools accountable to performance goals. When the state government deems that a public school or district is failing – by students’ scores on the Stanford Achievement Test – the state education bureaucracy takes control of the school and tries to do a better job. The state takeover is officially called “academic intervention.” Last year, only one school was under state control; the state Board of Education recently announced that the number will grow to seven schools this fall.

But this office-shuffling amounts to little more than re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic: the state government has no specific plan for improving student performance. (If they did, wouldn’t they share it with all schools?) While these state officials no doubt mean well, they cannot have the same concern for, knowledge of, and passion about each child’s progress than that child’s parents have.

Making local officials beholden to state officials ignores the ultimate clients of the public schools – parents and their children. Parents should be able to hold their local public schools directly accountable. Of course, schools are most accountable when parents have the right to choose which schools their children attend.

Parents who can afford to move to an area with quality public schools, or enroll their child in private school, already are exercising school choice. Parents without such means are forced to send their child to a school assigned by the government – whether their children are learning or not. These parents pay for education through their taxes, too, so shouldn’t they be able to choose their child’s school, instead of having to wait for “academic intervention” to give their child a good education?

Even worse, the state’s “academic intervention” has not proven to be successful so far. Litchfield High School in Gadsden became the first state takeover target when its students’ standardized test scores declined for three consecutive years (even though they weren’t the worst scores statewide). Recent news reports have detailed that very little was done differently; perhaps the most significant change was that everything required more paperwork. State and local officials have conceded publicly that state intervention didn’t produce better education:

Litchfield’s principal said “My expectations were not really met. The individuals we dealt with were great. But as far as the operation of the school, I don’t think anything really changed.”

The state Superintendent of Schools revealed that the takeover was like “flying an airplane and building it at the same time.”

Gadsden’s superintendent said “I think the state found it’s a lot more difficult to impact test scores and curriculum….”

The recently released test scores did show slight improvement, but not enough to remove Litchfield from under state control for at least another year.

Florida, on the other hand, is doing something different with its under-performing schools. The state ranks schools on an A-to-F scale, based on testing and other criteria. If a school flunks during two out of four years, the state awards opportunity scholarships (vouchers) to parents with children in that school. Parents can use these scholarships to pay tuition at a different public or private school. During the recent school year, children at two Pensacola-area elementary schools participated in the program.

Doing something different has produced desirable results. Last year, 78 Florida schools received an F, and the same grade for the 1999-2000 school year would have made their students eligible for opportunity scholarships. But at everyone of those schools, students scores on standardized reading tests improved enough so that each school earned a D. While this was not a miraculous improvement, the prevalence of success demonstrates that giving schools the incentive to try something different can work. Long-running, city-wide school voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have also produced significant gains in test scores of students from low-income families.

Alabama should have the courage to try something different. Last year, the state senate briefly considered S.B. 549, which would have created the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program, modeled on Florida’s legislation, would give students scholarships to escape schools in “academic intervention.” Giving parents a say in their children’s education, would truly make local public schools accountable. By the same token, doing nothing but extra paperwork to help children in failing schools is truly insane.