Monday, October 08, 2012

Interesting Article.  I don't spend a lot of time over at The Center for the American Experiment--Minnesota's conservative think tank--but I came across this article when I happened over to their website the other day.  I don't know a whole lot about Peter Epstein of the Hoover Institution (except that the Hoover Institution is a pretty conservative place) and his article does make a couple of good points about the Chicago teacher strike and the public employee salary/pension issues that many believe are simply untenable over the long run.

I'm not going to take too much issue with Epstein with his description of the problem.  Reasonable people can disagree about the magnitude of the public employee salary and pension issue.  It's not as big a deal in Minnesota, as teachers and other public employees pay more into their health care coverage and pension plans than do teachers in many other states.  That doesn't eliminate the issue, but the differences between Minnesota and Wisconsin public employees which came to light during the Wisconsin legislative fracas over public employee bargaining in 2011 indicate that the pressure to limit public employee bargaining is, and should be, less in Minnesota.

Where I will take issue with Epstein is in his suggested solution.  For Epstein, the answer to the problem is to greatly expand the charter option.  We have experience with the very liberal granting of charters since the charter school law was first passed in 1991.  In fact, problems with charter schools became so great as a result of the greatly expanded ability to create charters in the mid-1990s that Minnesota had to retrench a bit and tighten up authorizing authority.

There are two problems I see with the "charter as answer" school of thought.  First, where is quality assurance?  Student performance at charter schools is all over the board, which isn't a fatal indictment as performance is similar in comparable traditional schools.  The main point, and it's one I continue to harp on, is that if performance is going to be the measure of charter school success, it is going to have to get better.  Second, if the primary value of charter schools is to drive down the salaries of teachers, that's not necessarily a good thing, as it may push qualified teaching candidates into other fields as opposed to teaching.  Epstein claims this isn't a problem, but as most school boards and administrations know, teacher salaries in many curricular areas are not competitive with comparable private sector jobs.  Finding top-notch secondary level science and math teachers and special education teachers across almost all licensure areas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Paying for public services is going to be a challenge moving forward, but it's important to keep in mind the goals of the public education system and realize that going "cheap" may erode progress toward a fully educated populace.

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