In one of the clearer aspects of Senator McCain’s vague acceptance speech tonight, was the call for education as “the civil rights issue of this century.” And at the heart lay some important nostrums dear to conservative hearts. As he expressed it
When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have that choice and their children will have that opportunity.
What is notable is the increased role of charters in all this. While there is good reason to think that charters can provide plausible alternatives to parents, the actual educational data is more mixed, as a report from the Detroit Metro Times makes clear.
On the 2006 English and math MEAP tests, charter school students below the overall state average but better than the public school district in which they were located. Measured by ACT, charter high schools reported an average score of 15.5, well below the overall state average of 18.8, if slightly better than the 15.3 of Detroit schools.
While much of the above disparity is generated by the make-up of the charter schools themselves (students in Michigan are more likely to be poor), a second aspect would be the teaching staff. The lower teacher salaries may be read as indicating a younger or less qualified staff.
In short, charters like their parochial cousins, have not found a way to escape the gravitational pull of poverty. The conservative nostrum of easy exit doesn’t exist.
Likewise, the notion that if you only paid (select) teachers more, you would get better results also has been running aground of late. From the conservative Fordham Institute comes the editorial by Michael Petrill, pointing out that rewarding teachers works well if you’re in a place where teachers want to go, say Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids. But what if you’re in Pullman, Mecosta, New Era or Baldwin? Who goes to those places? By stratifying the teaching pool, pay to perform actually works against educational opportunity, matching the poorer performing teachers with the more undesirable locations.
Be it charter, or teacher pay, or even vouchers — each of these solutions represents at best, a variety of magical thinking on the part of the present GOP, policy hopes that somehow the right option will solve their problem. At worst the turn to these solutions represent little more than an empowerment of the already well off districts or cities.
But Sen. McCain and the GOP are right about this being the Civil Rights issue of the 21st Century. And here in Michigan and the midwest, our educational system is a necessary component if we are to have future we can embrace.