Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Can’t We Empower Parents with the Dollars to Choose?

A slightly different version of this piece with a few dozen comments resides at The Huffington Post. If you've rather read it there, click here.

I’ve worked directly inside schools, with schools, at Teachers College, Columbia, served as a teacher librarian, literacy staff developer, tech staff developer, program manager, educational administrator and talked to parents, teachers, and students from traditional and alternative settings (both inside and outside of school).  I find that more often than not, children and adults who are a part of an alternative, private, or “elite” education value and enjoy their experience more than those in traditional school.  What I find frustrating though is that this often only available to those with the funds or wherewithal to make it happen.  

If they have the means, I find that most parents where I live in New York City send their children to private schools.  There are also some who have figured out how to navigate the system to send their children to elite public schools that seem filled with mostly white and Asian peers. I know few well-to-do parents who send their children to regular public school.  I understand, this is only my experience, and that there are exceptions, but even if I’m off, the reality is that many families can’t enable their children to learn the way they feel is best because of their financial or life/career circumstances.  

Everyone should have access to the education opportunities they feel are best for their children.  Here is a solution that could provide more choice to more families.

What if instead of giving money to schools, funds were attached to the child and those funds went directly to the education provider.  For parents who were homeschooling or unschooling this would be in the form of parents providing receipts that could be deducted from their taxes. For public schools, students would enroll and the funds would follow them.  This would require some schools to grow, others to stay the same and others to shrink, redesign (likely with input from families) or close.   

If parents wanted to put together learning co-ops they could pool their money to do that.  If someone wanted to open an alternative school, it would be easier because the funds would be tied to the students so they wouldn’t have to worry about only kids who could afford this option being able to come up with tuition.  If the schools cost more than the per student fee, the additional fee would be determined by tax bracket with those in the higher brackets paying more and the lower less, but still giving everyone a greater chance to attend a school of choice and subsidizing based on income.  

Parents and their children, rather than the government, would determine what was best for each family.  For some it might look like traditional school with standardized tests.  For others it might look more like an apprenticeship model where children who are ready, begin learning in a field of interest, perhaps partnered with a business where they may later work.  For some this might look like a school that follows the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, Montessori or Reggio Emilia approach.  Some may choose a Democracy school or unschool setting. Ultimately parents would be empowered to select an educational method in which they felt their children would best succeed and even take a large role in helping to form such schools.  

There would be no high stakes testing.  There could be some opt in tests with samples as they do in countries like Finland.  Their would likely be authentic portfolio development that is created as a support to the student first and foremost.  

Some schools would have waiting lists, as they do today, and if so, it would make sense to open up another similar school in the area.  The parents who want that, could help make that happen.  Some schools would shrink as they do now and would either change what they do to attract more students and stabilize, or if they didn’t offer what seemed best for children, they would continue to lose the ability to have high enough enrollment to make it worth staying open.

This idea would be taking control from the government and giving it to the people, empowering them to do what they know and believe is best for their children.  

So, why can’t we do this?


  1. This is basically a voucher system, and it has been tried, most notably in Milwaukee. See the Wikipedia article on vouchers => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_voucher

    What's interesting though is the measure of accountability that the public would feel is necessary on all of the systems. Most voucher systems have used standardized testing as the measuring stick for how successful a school is. In a system where the vast majority of parents will send their students either to an institution of some kind (either publicly or privately funded) and want to know if that school is good, it seems that everyone of these schools reduces to the lowest common denominator and teaches to the test to improve scores and attract more students.

  2. @David, I don't feel it is the same as a voucher system which is perceived to take the dollars from a public school and give them to a private school. What I propose here has dollars directly attached to students, not schools.Parents and the schools would have their own accountability system that they feel best meets the needs of their children. In many cases it would not include the standardized tests that most realize are failing our students. Many parents realize the one-size-fits-all assessment fits few. This gives those families an alternative.

    It also gives communities the power to take ownership of starting schools and co-ops while empowering parents to be partners with schools / learning centers to provide what is best for their children.

    This is much more than a voucher system. It is a system that would put power and accountability directly in the hands of parents and schools rather than government.

  3. The problem with this approach can be summarized in two words: scam artists.

  4. It would be nice, but I think very difficult to ever institute in reality. Think of the costs of buildings, materials, teachers/instructors/mentors. For lots of different types of schooling within the same area, and if similar things are happening close together a better use of the taxpayer money would start to look like traditional schools to house these projects and areas for learning.

    The choices given now with charter schools, etc. overwhelmingly show that they do no better and often worse than a traditional public school.

    I would like to see some help given to home schooling families to pay for supplies. Are they able to claim the 250 on their income taxes that teachers can?

  5. @Downes, are you implying that there are no scam artists in public schools? That there’s no money wasted or spent on things that many parents and children do not see as a priority? Are you implying that there are no scam artists involved with the test prep companies, curriculum providers, text book companies, hardware vendors, etc.? Do you not think that parents who are handing over their more precious possessions for a day wouldn’t see through this if those in power were scam artists? Or are you implying that the parents would be scam artists?

    I think when parents have ownership and empowerment over their child’s learning each child has an advocate ensuring those in charge and who they do business with are doing the right thing. When they are not, the parents can ban together to react or move their children to another setting.

    Also, the system I’m proposing would require schools to do have a budget and provide a proper accounting of expenses. I believe when schools have the eyes of every parent on them as well as partnering to support them, the likelihood of scam artists would be outweighed by the likelihood that children would be raised in the most effective way possible.

  6. @Anonymous, public schools have to pay for all those things and do so with the per student allocations. Private schools do the same. I just met a principal who opened a democratic school. Finding a building and paying the monthly rent is not an issue. The per student allocation can pay for all those things. In places like New York there is approximately 10k allocated per student. A school with 60 students would have a $600,000 per year budget which could cover necessary costs. Additionally, there is nothing from stopping schools from sharing space if that is their choice.

    As far as your identification of charter schools not doing better than public schools, first I would challenge the assessments given as I think we are often measuring the wrong thing. Next I would point you to the success of schools like I share in this post http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2011/02/answer-to-teacher-retention-find.html. At these schools what is valued is that students discover, explore, and develop their talents, passions, and interests. The same holds true for unschooled students. These students are doing better than those in public schools. One size does not fit all and a test score does not equal failure or success.

    As far as families who decide to allow their children to learn outside of school as in the case of home schooling, unschooling, learning naturally they would have their own per child allocation as well to provide learning experiences and opportunities that best meet their child’s needs.

  7. I love this idea. My first thought was also "scam artists," but Lisa I love your response to that. It would be awesome.

  8. We had a modified quasi market in New Zealand. Parents can send their kids to any school they want however if the school is overcrowded the school dictated who attends. It was changed to a lottery-based system to allocate extra places, after complaints that the popular schools were cherry picking students.

    The major problem with your plan for me would be equity-based concerns. It assumes that all students have access to public transport and/or parents willing to drive them further afield if need be. It also assumes that all parents are savvy consumers of education, when many of them for whatever reason (lack of education, English etc) might not be.

    I like the idea of a community-based school so that all students should be able to get a good education no matter what school they end up going to. But there should be a lot more parental and student input into running of schools. I was a student rep for my high school board and don't see why all high/middle schools shouldn't have student reps at the decision-making level.

    Of course our contexts are hugely different. 87% of NZ kids are in state (public) school, 11% in integrated (state funded so teach the NZ curriculum but have 'special character' eg. Steiner, catholic, maori schools etc.) and the remainder are in private school.

  9. @Teacher Trainee,
    Yes, the great schools would have more students than they could handle and they could have a lottery system waiting list. That makes sense and is also a signal that it makes sense for another similar school to open in the neighborhood to meet the need. There is no reason this couldn’t be a public school. Public schools are after all the default to accommodate the demand.

    I don’t think it makes sense to dismiss the system because some parents can’t make it work. They still have the same options they always had as even if they did nothing a public education is available. Where I work in Harlem, there are many low income families. They work hard to ensure their children can go to a secondary school of choice. They get creative and figure it out. I would not say we shouldn’t give them the option to do so.

    You are right about their not being a lot of student / parent representation in schools today. Sadly, many parents and students feel disempowered. This would change if my plan were in place.

  10. I think it's a really insightful idea! Unfortunately, equity will always be a problem in education since people are so different across the country. But I do think that most of them share the same principle: Most parents want to see their child succeed.

    I think the problem is that people often perceive parents as apathetic to their child's education, when really they are just clueless as the first step to take! That is something that I've personally noticed in my district. What if some of the money attached to the child was used to coach or mentor parents in a workshop to help them make the right choice for their student and know how to best support them? I think that this would solve so many problems in our schools and communities.

  11. In some ways, this is what Governor Christie is suggesting in New Jersey, with his voucher bill. He wants to take money from traditional public schools (by giving corporations tax breaks for "contributions" to the program) to give money to children attending private schools (including those who already attend private schools). But this is in the context of demanding high stakes testing from public schools (we just started three days of HSPA testing today) and no testing requirements for private schools. It's in the context of some private schools demanding not just money but statements of belief from the families of students (ie. your child can only attend if you get a letter from your minister saying that you've accepted Jesus as your personal savior). It's in the context of private schools having the right expel kids for rules violations while public schools earn negative ratings for suspending a kid for the same behavior.

    I'm all for giving parents and students more choice, but we can't give the same (public) resources to schools with the right to choose their students and to schools who are forced to take whoever shows up. The dollar value of having a student body with more in common than living within a couple miles of each other has to exceed $5000/year/student. Either all schools receiving state funding have to accept (and be judged on the success of) every student who applies, or every school has the right to show students who don't fit into the school culture the door.

  12. @Anonymous, I don’t think that parents are perceived as apathetic. I think parents feel disempowered and this plan could help empower them. There is already money available for parent training if schools wanted to do it, but that doesn’t address the issues I outline or empower parents. In the meantime parents can read my guide with ideas to fix the school rather than the child at http://www.scribd.com/doc/49151430

  13. The reason we can't do this is because Big Business and now "Government" who have no knowledge or education in the area of Education/Developmental Psychology, Home-School Communication and how that is developed, and all that comes along with the experience of working in a school...HOLD ALL the MONEY and tell us what they are going to do with it. They hold no regard for what educators say, don't care to review research and what past research has proven over and over again, so it all falls on deaf ears..... unfortunately...

    It really is sad because there are projects such as that which have worked (see Harvard.edu for more information) but gov't and big business only see green. They don't see students, teachers, and families.


  14. @@Anonymous, I think it’s pretty different than what Christie is suggesting. First, schools wouldn’t have money. Money is attached to students so money is not taken from any place and given to any place. It goes where the parents choose. Also, much like in Democratic schools, the school members (students/staff) and in this case parents, not the government, determines the assessment. Let’s remember the government is getting the money from the people. In reality it is the people’s money. This plan enables the people to determine how it would be spent best.

    As to your warning, this wouldn’t be an issue. Especially if parents can help create the schools that are best for their children and they’d have the money to fund it. For extremely difficult to place students, special schools could be opened. These schools would also get additional funds from insurance companies if they are designed to treat students with special needs that are identified. Receiving additional funds from insurance companies for treatment, including school, is nothing new. It is already the case for many schools. Additionally, just as is the case now, there would need to be public schools to ensure there is a school for everyone and that would always be an option.

    As far as the dollar amount per student, it would be the dollar amount already allocated which I linked to in my post. In NY it’s about 10,000 per student.

  15. Lisa the answer to your question is a political one, not an educational one. Time to run for office, girl! :)

  16. Christie's idea includes the "money is attached to students" meme, at least in the press it receives. So does every voucher system I've ever heard proposed. It's always "give the parents the money and let them choose" in the press release.

    For that matter, state aid is *currently* linked to the number of students in the schools so there's a reasonable argument to be made that the money is already attached to the students (albeit loosely).

  17. Let's step back and ask -- What keeps this from happening now? The real answer -- not a thing except our own belief that we need "permission" or support. The opportunities are all there already, we don't need to wait anymore for someone to provide it. One of the most pernicious things about the status quo is that it has created a culture of dependency that blinds us to the power that we actually have.
    How to start? Of course, it will grow wonderfully complex and beautifully "messy" like any self-organizing organic system it, but my suggestions for starting would be to inform parents that their kids should boycott all state tests -- this is an essential part to breaking the status quo at one of its major present power points. They should write "I respectfully decline to take part in this assessment" on the paper.
    Second thing is for learners to "own" their learning, not keep ceding that to the school, the subject, the teacher or the grade level. This is followed with the demand (already possible in most states, actually), that performance-based credit be awarded for demonstration of learning proficiency. There are early examples of one way this could work with CCSSO's Virtual Learning Magnet Project funded by NASA a couple of years ago and their current NASA project called MISSION IIS which takes the concept and expands it exponentially.
    Bottom line-- we have to stop waiting for "permission" and begin to assert what we have already. Take a look at what happened in Egypt where the people were so down-trodden and oppressed that a democracy movement was given almost no chance of success.
    The future's ours . . . IF we can free it!

  18. Tom,

    What we don't have though is the right for our allocated tax dollars to go in the direction that we choose. I think what you are saying though, is that perhaps communities, one by one, could decide not to publicly fund education and instead not vote on property tax etc. increases in exchange for a bill that would give families the right to own the money.

    I agree with your test suggestion. I wrote a piece about that here and on the Huff Post which was quite widely red.

    The Virtual Learning Magnet is a great idea. Agreed that should be how we own the learning.

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights. Quite helpful.


  19. I don't know Lisa, why can't we? Seriously! I'm with you, lets figure it out...