Arguments around the Alabama Flex Bill

Alabama’s legislature recently passed, in ways that are questionable enough for a judge to issue an injunction against the signing of it into law, a bill that would allow parents to get a tax credit if they moved their child from a failing school to a school that is not failing, either public or private. As is typical, arguments for and against the bill have fallen into typical camps, either pro change or pro teacher. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag and say I’m opposed to the bill and hope the injunction stands, but I think my reasons for this stance straddles both camps. I am going to attempt to look at the various arguments for and against the bill and explain why I take the position I do. I’ll also explain my exceedingly unpopular suggestions for fixing the failing school syndrome.

From what I’ve heard or read, there are a few set arguments for and against the bill. These are the ones I’ve read about, heard on local talk radio, or heard among parents. Please feel free to comment if you think I’ve missed an important one. I am choosing to completely skip over the questionable method by which the bill was passed and the equally questionable method by which it has been stopped.

First, the list of pro-bill arguments:

  • The status quo is broken, we need change
  • Parents should have a choice in schooling their children
  • Keeping students in failing schools is bad
  • Schools should be run like industry, failing schools should be closed
  • Teachers should be held accountable for failing schools
  • Competition breeds improvement

And the list of anti-bill arguments:

  • Unfairly punishes schools in the most need of help
  • It is an attack on already overworked teachers
  • Arbitrary definition of failing school
  • It opens the door for charter schools
  • It unfairly targets disabled students
  • This bill does nothing to help failing schools

And finally, I’ll offer various solutions to the syndrome of failing schools in Huntsville, the only system I can speak on. I suspect, however, my solutions have a broader application.

So lets jump in with both feet, and start dealing with these arguments one by one.

The status quo is broken, we need change!

Is the status quo broken? I think it is only fair to assume that it is. In Huntsville we for all intent and purpose have two school systems, North and South. Southern schools are doing well, Northern schools are struggling or failing. As such, we must accept that the status quo must change. So on this argue net, at least on first glance, I find myself on the pro-bill side.

In fact, pro-bill supporters are quick to point out that the status quo is broken and if you oppose this bill you are in favor of keeping kids in failing schools. This is absurd. Being willing to admit that the status quo is broken is not the same as being willing to admit that this bill fixes the status quo.

It is the short sighted nature of modern politics that causes this argument to fall apart. In this thinking, the status quo is broken, change the status quo; while no thought has gone into why we arrived at the status quo we are in. Without looking at how the status quo was arrived at, you can’t possibly know what this bill will do to effect the status quo.

The truth is, we arrived at the current status quo by 50+ years of social and legislative agendas to move kids from schools seen at below adequate into schools seen as superior. The resulting exodus has gone in rushed phases over the years, the first rush and the first massive influx of modern private schools in the state which is commonly called “White Flight” and ending with the newly coined “Black Flight” of the 1990s has led us to our current situation with a all but separate North and South school district.  This bill does nothing to change that “status quo,” instead execrating the decay already in progress.  So instead of offering change, the champions of changing the status quo are actually champions of accelerating the decline of failing schools.

Parents should have a choice in schooling

The idea that parents don’t have choices in schooling their children is a champion cause for anyone that wants to ignore the reality of failing schools.  They believe by offering this tax credit parents will move kids out of a failing school to… what?  Private school?  It won’t cover a full year’s tuition.  Another school in the district, assuming there is room. Just what choice is this adding?

And do Parents even need a choice?  In the early 1990s, charter schools were introduced in Chicago. The University of Chicago Economics department saw a chance to do a little deep statistical research, and what they found is interesting. They tracked every child who stayed in Chicago Public Schools who also applied for a new charter school.  Because the demand for the charter was so high, students were awarded a slot at the school based on a lottery system.

Now this study didn’t just follow the students who got into the charter school, it followed those students who applied and didn’t get in.  It probably won’t surprise you to learn that children of parents who applied for the charter school and got into the new school had great test scores and a high college admissions.  What  may surprise you is that the kids who didn’t get in had almost no statistical difference in testing or college admission, even though many of them stayed behind at a “failing” school. At least as far as their academic career went, the change from a “failing” school to a “charter” school had no bearing on students testing or college admission.

Parents do have lots of choices about how their child is educated, but they can only exercise those choices if they are involved with their child’s school life.  Parents who divorce themselves from the schooling of their children don’t have many choices.

Keeping Children In Failing Schools is Bad

Sure it is.  No one wants to be part of something that is failing, nor should they.  But what, exactly, is a failing school and who gets to decide? Let’s take two random schools in Huntsville (neither of which is random because I have information sources at both, so I know a bit more than most), Morris Elementary and Weatherly Elementary.  Morris is a North school, Weatherly is a Southie.  Morris is currently a failing school, Weatherly is an exceptional school.

A kindergarten teacher at both school tests her children early in the year to get a starting baseline of what her children know. They are (currently) tested again and again throughout the year, ending up with a final test that determines what they “know” after the first year of school. There is a state determined “baseline” that is the minimum knowledge that a child must know after leaving Kindergarten. An important skill learned in Kindergarten is reading, and that is one of the significant baselines of that grade level.

Children entering kindergarten at Weatherly have, over the last several years, had an average baseline in reading that was within a point or two of what the baseline is for the end of the year. In many individual cases, the children already exceeded the end of the year baseline.  Exceptional indeed.

Children at Morris are not so lucky. They entered with an average that was significantly below the baseline for the end of the year, and actually well below the baseline that is expected of a Kindergartener at the beginning of the year.

Is it any surprise the a greater percentage of children reach or surpass baseline at Weatherly than at Morris?  Yet, Morris manages to take 95+% of new kindergarteners and move them to or beyond baseline.  95+%.  That’s a significant achievement, considering how far behind those children were at the beginning of the year. In one year, Weatherly had 95% of its students at or near end of the year baseline on day one of school.

Now Morris is arguably a failing school.  But if you had a kindergartener who, for whatever reason, was well behind the curve at the start of the year, I’d argue that the teachers at Morris are doing more with less, have more experience with catching children up, and are doing the absolute best they can with what they are given.  I’m not sure a below average student in kindergarten is better served by being moved to Weatherly, where the child would be significantly behind the other students.

On the other hand, an above average child at Morris would probably be better served at Weatherly, where his peers are more advanced and prepared for learning.

So is leaving a child at a school that is determined to be failing a bad thing?  I’d have to say, it completely depends on the circumstances of the school and the child.

Schools should be run like industry, Failing schools should be closed.

This is the current mantra of the pro-bill side.  If only schools would accept best industry practice, you’d see massive improvements in education all the way across the spectrum. If only school were held accountable to the stakeholders in the same manner as industry, schools would be forced to improve, or be closed.  Why can’t schools run more like a business, they ask, and smirk at smile while the other side says “School isn’t a business.”

Sorry anti-bill people, school is exactly like a business. School do have to answer to stakeholders and have to preform or they should be closed.

Now while my anti-bill minded friends are picking up their jaws from the floor, let me to go on.

The problem is, schools are not a business like “Apple, Inc.” They aren’t even a business like your local stop and shop.  Schools are a business and like every business there are rules and regulations on how those businesses must operate. Those regulations come in the form of a century or more of litigation and legislation, and schools today must meet or exceed those regulations to operate.

But the pro-bill side doesn’t want to look at those regulations when it comes to operating a school.  Huntsville City Schools is using a process called LEAN to streamline and improve non-scholastic business practices. I actually approve of this, although I don’t approve of their method of hiring a consultant to perform the analysis.  The problem is business seems to want schools to use LEAN on the way students are taught.

One of the primary regulatory requirements of schools in America is that every child between the ages of 6 and 18 is entitled to a free, public education. Every child.  And that you can not discriminate against a child based on their ability to learn, ability to perform or ability to participate. That makes schools unlike every other business in America.

Under this “school should be like industry” attitude, schools pull in a raw material – children.  They produced a finished product – high school graduates ready for college. They are paid, through taxes, for the effort. The problem with this model is that schools have absolutely no control over the sources of their raw material.

Worse, the raw material, as it is processed, is not under strictly controlled environments. Apple needs silver of a specific quality and grade to make the circuits that become the products they sell.  Apple would never allow that silver that didn’t meet their strict requirements come into their supply line, and if sub-adequate silver was delivered, it would be rejected.  Schools can’t reject any raw material delivered to them.  Once the raw material enters Apple’s supply chain, Apple protects it from outside environmental concerns and maintains it’s purity throughout the manufacturing process.  Schools return their raw materials to the “supplier” each day with no guarantee that the “purity” will be the same the following day, much less over the 12-13 years the school has to produce the finished product.

So comparing schools to industry fails flat.  But is there a business model that more closely matches that of what a school has to produce?  You bet.  Dentists.

Dentists are given a raw material, dirty teeth.  They then, for a fee, give back clean teeth. But in between visits to the dentist, they have no control over the teeth.  So they give the patient guidance, instruction and often tools used to maintain the teeth.  When the dentist sees the teeth again, he repeats the process.  Sometimes it works, and the teeth are cleaned quickly and efficiently.  Sometimes the teeth are not maintained and the process takes longer, may involve multiple trips to the dentist to finish, and costs the patient more.  And to start with, the genetic or previous maintenance of the teeth is inconsistent, and not the same from patient to patient.

Schools are much more like this.  Schools have to take everyone that comes to them, at least a dentist can decide a case is outside his ability or expertise.  Schools give the students and parents guidance, instruction and tools to continue toward the ultimate goal of graduation and college. But here is where the analogy falls apart.  Schools are expected to make each student progress and perform at the exact same level, regardless of what happens to the raw material outside of the classroom.

So yes, I say we should treat schools more like business.  Treat them like dentists, and stop holding them responsible for what happens outside of the classroom.

Teachers should be held accountable for failing schools.

Couldn’t agree more.  But again, there is a caveat.

Teachers should be held accountable for failing schools, but let’s go back to the previous Weatherly/Morris example.  Weatherly and Morris were not given the same set of students to work with.  The student body at the two schools have drastically different abilities and home life. Holding teachers at Morris to the exact same performance standards as the teachers at Weatherly isn’t fair.

Moreover, looking at the raw data year to year, it wouldn’t be fair to hold Weatherly to the same standards as Morris.  A typical Morris Kindergarten classroom sees a 500-1500% increase in baseline scores in reading.  A typical Weatherly kindergarten looks at a 50-75% increase in baseline scores.  Using that single criterion, which school is failing?  Under current guidelines, it is Morris, because even though Morris dramatically increased the baseline scores of the students, not enough passed the minimum baseline at the end of the year. A school is considered “failing” based on a very narrow definition of criteria to the exclusion of all the rest.  So despite the fact that Morris’s teachers are exceptional at pulling up students baseline scores, they are failing.

I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t right. We should hold teachers and schools accountable for failing, but we shouldn’t define failing as a one dimensional criterion at the end of year.  The entire year should be considered into calling a school failing. Starting points should be considered as well as ending points.

So absolutely, if we come up with a more realistic definition of a failing school, then I’m all for holding teachers accountable. But under the current definition of what makes a school fail, then such a concept is meaningless.

That’s not to say a teacher shouldn’t be held accountable. If a teacher constantly fails to match her teammates performance year after year, then that teacher should be held accountable and be removed. But holding good, honest, hardworking and effective teachers accountable to a single criteria that is an unfair representation of the job they are performing is ridiculous.

Competition Breeds Improvement

I can think of no truer statement.  Competition absolutely breeds improvement. But it doesn’t breed improvement for everyone.  Some people are left by the wayside in the quest for improvement. So competition doesn’t breed universal improvement.

Let’s take a look at the SEC.  Specifically SEC football.  Highly competitive.  And if the last 7 years of National Championships are any indication, the SEC is the single most competitive and improved conference in college football. The number of NFL drafts supports this claim.

But that level of competition did not improve every single football player wanting to play in the conference.  In fact, the vast majority of those who want to play in the conference aren’t allowed to.  They never even get the chance because the expected improvement of those players is so far below the level of play necessary.

Schools, once again, don’t have that luxury.  Public schools don’t get to recruit or pick the best of the best when it comes to students.  Competition weeds out the weak and celebrates the strong, however weak and strong are defined inside the competition. Schools don’t get that chance.

So competition doesn’t work in public schools the same way it does in other fields.  Instead, it weakens some schools to the point of being impossible to function while strengthening other schools to the point of superior performance.  Never mind that the competition was inserted artificially, or that the playing field was never level to begin with.   It would be like expecting a high school football team to play against the University of Alabama.

So that’s a look at the Pro-Bill side.  Let’s look at the Anti-Bill side:

Unfairly punishes schools in the most need of help

I seriously don’t like this argument, perhaps because it is most true.  But the reason it unfairly punishes the schools in the most need of help doesn’t have anything to do with the bill itself.

Schools in most need of help, by and large with a few exceptions, aren’t in need of help because of money, teachers or anything the government provides to them.  We’ve come to a point in American Education History where we have taken the success or failure of a student to graduate and be college ready squarely on the shoulder of the teacher.  Wait, that’s not true.  We’ve put the failure of a student to graduate and be college ready on the teacher.  Success is the result of something or someone else, at least in Huntsville.  But that’s an entirely different blog.

The fact remains that teachers are a part… a significant part… of the success or failure of a student.  But not the only, or even the majority.  Home life, study habits, parental involvement and a host of other things determine the likelihood of success. In many of today’s failing schools society as stripped the school of students who are likely to succeed, moving them on to other schools. We’ve left these schools and their teachers with those least likely to succeed and then blame them when they don’t, and this is a shame. This bill just pushes us further down the road to singling out those least likely to succeed and allowing them to fail.

It is an attack on already overworked teachers.

I don’t buy into this one little bit.  The attack on teachers is already there. Teachers are being punished under the current system for not having control over things they’ve never had, and never will have, under their control. This bill changes nothing about that, and only goes to further the inevitable failure of the entire system.

Arbitrary Definition of Failing

It isn’t arbitrary at all.  It is goal oriented, unfair and misguided, but it isn’t arbitrary.  Focus on the problems with the definition, not on silly side notes.

It opens the door for Charter Schools

Yes it does.  And that’s a good thing, if your goal is to close failing schools. It’s a bad thing only if you want to keep the status quo.  Of course, as I pointed out, the new status quo is just going to be another step down the line of the current status quo, so it really doesn’t matter.  Bring on the charter schools, which will excel at their job because they don’t play by the same rulebook as every other school and can pick and choose who gets in and who gets out.  And then, at some point in the future, schools that aren’t failing today will be failing when all the likely to succeed students are removed from the system, and suddenly charter schools have to play by the rules of the schools they shut down, and they start failing too.

It unfairly targets disabled students

I’m not sure if this one is true or not, and will bow to the opinion of those more versed in the needs of these students. I wouldn’t know if it helps or hurts students with special needs.  At a glance, since it doesn’t help students less likely to succeed, I don’t see how it can help disabled students, but I’m not sure it hurts them.

It does nothing to help failing schools

Absolutley true.  But for this to have any meaning, you have to assume that this bill is designed to help a school at all.  It is designed to move money away from failing schools and move more likely to be successful students away from failing schools.  This bill is absolutely intended to hurt a failing school.  No question about it.

Solutions

I do have some alternative solutions I’d like to propose.  None of them will be popular.

Means Testing

I’d like this bill much more if it had a sort of means testing included for the tax credit. Only I don’t mean economically, I mean some sort of system that tests how involved a student AND THE STUDENT’S FAMILY is involved in the success of the school. Are the parents members of the PTA? Do they volunteer at the school?  Have they participated in some way of improving the failing school.  If they have, and they are ready to transfer their child, then let them get the credit.  If they haven’t, then they are ineligible for the credit, but can transfer.

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2 thoughts on “Arguments around the Alabama Flex Bill

  1. Nicely done. Agree with much of it. Disagree with some of it. And I need to discuss more to know what I think of some of it. We need more political discourse like this.

    • I welcome open discussion, and a willingness to listen to the other side. I think there is value in most opinions if you take the time to stop and listen.

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