University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

No Fireworks???

In The View from the OEP on September 22, 2011 at 9:01 am

Last week, the University of Arkansas hosted just the type of interesting panel discussion that draws the attention of researchers and policy geeks.  With a showing of the controversial documentary “Waiting for Superman” as a backdrop, a crowd of over 100 was treated to the comments of two education experts discussing the pros and cons of school choice
and charter schools.   Chris Heller, the Little Rock attorney who represents the Little Rock Public School District, has been a vocal opponent of charter school expansion in recent years; he took the con side of the argument.   On the other side was Howard Fuller, professor of education from Marquette University, who argued in favor of more school choice for low-income families.

In formats such as these, I am continually struck by the common ground that the “debaters” find.  There were, indeed, no fireworks or heated disagreements on this night.  Instead there was a surprising level of agreement between the two.  In my opinion, this type of public discussion with civil and polite disagreement should provide an example to all of us in the world of K12 education.  We can disagree without demonizing our opponent.  In fact, when we interact in this way, we often find a many areas of agreement that we did not know existed.  You can read the story in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette; in the meantime, here are some of the key points or highlights of the discussion (from my perspective, at least):

  • Chris Heller argued that, while charters may prove useful, they are not a solution to the fundamental problems of education.  Heller worries that allowing the more active parents in Little Rock schools to choose public charter schools can leave the remaining kids in traditional public schools less well off …
  • Howard Fuller disagreed, claiming that the low-income families in Little Rock (and elsewhere) deserve the same right to school choice that many of us have by virtue of our wealth; that is, many in the US can exercise school choice either by moving to a neighborhood with desirable schools or by paying tuition to a private school.  Fuller’s big concern is with the people who can’t choose because of being poor.
  • On the film Heller voiced concern that the film was imbalanced because it did not show high-performing traditional public schools or lousy public charter schools; Fuller did not disagree.
  • On the impact of teacher unions Fuller argued that teacher unions do impede educational improvements in some ways; Heller said that this is not a big problem in Arkansas as collective bargaining does not occur in most districts.
  • On transportation for children in public charter schools Heller noted that it was problematic that charters in Arkansas do not provide bus transportation for their students (note: at least some charters in AR do have bus transportation for their students); Fuller agreed that public charters should provide transportation for students.
  • On the idea of performance pay for teachers Fuller argued that teacher pay and job retention should be based on how well the teachers perform in the classroom; in a bit of a surprise, Heller unequivocally agreed that more effective teachers should be compensated better than less effective teachers.
Howard Fuller, a former Superintendent who was featured in the film, closed the night with a note of clarification, claiming that he still believes in public education even while supporting school choice and public charter schools for poor students.
According to Dr. Fuller public education is a concept that every person should have access to publicly funded education. However, we often confuse that concept with the belief the public education refers to one particular type of delivery system. To quote him:
“Public education is a concept that says it is very important that the public be educated. We created delivery systems to make that happen.   Since God didn’t make these delivery systems, they can be changed. ”
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