Donald Cohen: Getting education reform right
Donald Cohen is the co-author of the new book “The Privatization of Everything.” In this guest piece for Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet, he talks about how privatization is the wrong way to reform education, and how we can make education better without it.
The recent announcement by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg that he’s investing $750 million to expand student enrollment in charter schools was a harsh reminder that the decades-long experiment with market-based education reform isn’t working. Charter schools have been in existence for decades, but they haven’t proved to be the panacea their supporters claimed. To the contrary, many communities see them as harming district schools that educate most American schoolchildren.
That’s why what a growing number of public schools are doing to actually improve educational outcomes — and create strong ties among families, students, educators, and communities along the way — is so promising and refreshing.
Over the past few years, public schools from places as diverse as the suburbs of Tampa and Los Angeles have been implementing what’s called the “community school” approach. Community schools bring together local nonprofits, businesses and public services to offer a range of support and opportunities to students, families and nearby residents. Their goal is to support the entirety of a student’s well-being to ensure they are healthy, safe and in a better position to learn. These benefits then extend to the surrounding community — which has been especially crucial during the pandemic.
Research shows that community schools following best practices improve student educational outcomes, provide as much as one-third more learning time, and reduce racial and economic achievement gaps.
In the 2018-2019 school year, Gibsonton Elementary School outside Tampa improved its grade on Florida’s annual academic report card from a “D” to a “C.” How? By focusing on nonacademic issues that interfere with student learning but are often ignored by traditional school improvement approaches.
Like public fire departments, public education benefits all of us, even if we don’t have school-age children. And like with coronavirus vaccines and other public health measures, no child should be excluded — there should be no winners and losers.
In the “school choice” marketplace, charter schools compete with other schools for the education dollars that come with each student. This competition has a downside. While charter schools are legally required to accept all students without discrimination, the reality is often different. Some charters use a variety of schemes to keep out new or move out existing students who are more costly to educate, like special education students. For example, a 2016 study found that at least 253 charter schools in California were at the time potentially violating the law by maintaining exclusionary admission requirements for students.