5. Busing to Achieve Desegregation
The idea of busing white school children into black neighborhoods and black children into white neighborhoods to bring more racial balance to schools traces its roots to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision. Within 25 years, busing to desegregate schools had become common throughout the country. While busing has helped raise minority achievement levels, the practice presents myriad problems. First, all those buses and all that gas costs money, funds that could be spent on school buildings, teacher salaries, etc. Also, it’s unfair to ask certain students to ride the bus for an hour or more each way, when kids in their own neighborhood attend the local community school thanks to a quirk in busing district boundaries. From the very beginning, polls showed that even parents who supported desegregated schools opposed busing. Busing is even more controversial today, with the majority of parents supporting their child’s attendance at a neighborhood school. There is a divide here, with parents who have a successful local school less likely to support busing than parents who live near a failing school. In most cases, that breaks down along socioeconomic and racial lines.
4. Charter Schools
Charter schools are one of the most poorly understood concepts in education today, but that makes them no less controversial. Charter schools can be founded by parents, educators, non-profit groups or even corporations. Charter schools are open to all students — at popular schools, students must gain entry through a lottery — and are certified (ie. chartered) by either state or local governments or local school districts. Although they receive public funding, they are privately managed. Since 1992, some 6,700 charter schools have opened nationwide, according to a 2011 study by the Center For Education Reform.
In general, conservatives support charter schools, while Democrats oppose them, thanks to fierce opposition from one of their biggest constituencies — teachers unions. Both supporters and opponents offer a plethora of statistics to prove their point. A 2009 Stanford University study of charter schools in 15 states and Washington, D.C., found that charter schools perform slightly worse than traditional schools, and the number of charters performing worse outnumbers the ones doing better by a 2-1 ratio. Perhaps the strongest evidence in favor of charter schools comes from New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005, most city schools were turned into charter schools. A study reported in 2011 showed that students in a majority of those schools were improving in reading, math, or both subjects “notably” faster than students in traditional public schools. Results such as these have led to a push by parents nationwide for more charter schools.
3. More Funding Would Mean Better Public Schools
The award-winning 2010 documentary, Waiting for “Superman,” was both praised and criticized for its portrayal of the U.S. public education system as a failure. One of the film’s premises is that the U.S. cannot spend its way to better education, pointing out that inflation-adjusted education spending per student has doubled in the past 40 years, with no improvement in test scores. Many studies have shown that private schools perform better, at a lower cost per student, than public schools. Critics will argue that private schools generally draw a class of wealthier students more likely to excel. What do we make of studies showing that private school students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds perform better, at a lower cost per student, than their counterparts in public schools?
2. Teacher Performance Pay
At first glance, it sounds like a great idea: Give teachers whose students meet and exceed expectations a salary bonus. But the issue is fraught with issues of fairness. For example, students at schools in affluent areas perform better than students in minority schools. Is it fair for teachers at those affluent schools to receive a bonus, merely by virtue of where they teach? And teachers have no control over the students in their class, who may be dealing with family or personal problems, or possibly had a really terrible teacher at the previous grade level. Teacher unions staunchly oppose pay-for-performance plans, instead preferring across-the-board pay raises. That will continue to lead to some interesting showdowns between unions and Republican-controlled state legislatures that are pushing performance pay initiatives.
1. School-Choice Vouchers
This concept has been championed by American conservatives since at least the 1980s, and staunchly opposed by liberals from the beginning. It’s not only the most controversial item on this list, but the most nuanced as well, dealing with issues of fairness, privilege and constitutional authority. In a nutshell, a school-choice voucher works like this: the government gives parents an education certificate each year, worth somewhere between $3,000 and $10,000. The parents then use that to pay for tuition at a private school of their choice. In essence, vouchers take power and money from the public education system and let parents make their own education choices. It would give poor students more access to private education, much like their richer counterparts. It also would resolve an issue of fairness, in that parents of private school students would no longer be forced to pay for public education they don’t use.
Vouchers pose several potential problems, however. First, many of these students opt to attend religious private schools, which critics contend violates the separation between church and state. Also, the voucher amounts don’t come close to paying the full tuition at the elite private schools. Finally, taking that voucher money out of public education would hurt an already strapped system. Teacher unions strongly oppose vouchers, for obvious reasons — the more money and students going to private schools, the less money and students going to public schools, resulting in job losses. As of 2011, nine states already had some type of school-choice system in place and polls have found support across racial, economic and political lines for vouchers, although those same polls show support drops if it’s pointed out vouchers will take money from public education. Here are links to more pro and con arguments for this controversial issue.