Those who oppose the centralization of education (via national standards and federally regulated funding mechanisms) often argue that doing so will result in two things: first, a severe degradation of quality and, second, the limiting of school choice. In defense of the former argument, opponents of government-run schools argue that centralization would resemble a monopoly and, as such, there would be no incentive for improvement. Relative to the notion that school choice would be limited, the same people argue that the proliferation of such “little laboratories of learning” as charter schools would cease. Therefore, some of the most promising reforms and innovations would be stymied.
I see things differently; I believe that centralizing standards and funding mechanisms is a prerequisite of success for the school choice movement. Choice and centralization are not only compatible – they are necessary partners in the fight against educational inequality.
In beginning this conversation, it is important to note that the choice movement has its flaws. Some charter schools (the go-to option for those who choose to walk away from traditional public schooling) have been successful in stimulating powerful dialogue about education reform. The KIPP schools are an excellent example.
However, for some students, this notion of “choice” is a misnomer. Most charter schools hold lotteries each year to determine which students will “win” a seat. What happens to those students who do not win the lottery? In a nation where the inconsistent and unequal funding of schools is a legitimate problem, many of these students are forced back to their under-resourced districts, or decide to drop out altogether. No student should have to make that sort of choice.
For this reason, the school choice movement needs to be supported by centralized standards and centralized funding mechanisms. It is in this way that choice and centralization are compatible.
Common standards necessary
To be specific, school choice makes national standards even more of a necessity — the more diverse the school options become, the more important it is to have standards for comparing the success of these schools, relative to their varied approaches. These standards can be loose enough to provide freedom for their fulfillment, all the while guaranteeing that all students (no matter their placement in a traditional public or charter school) are provided with an excellent education full of the perquisites that would make them “college ready.” If all varieties of schools are held accountable by common standards, this will engender the incentives and competition necessary to guard against the aforementioned degradation of school quality.
Those who argue that centralization will yield a sub-par product must also be reminded that the quality of schools within individual states varies wildly, and is significantly dependant on the wealth of the residents in any given district. As evidence, take a look around the state of Minnesota: According to U.S. News and World Report, the top schools in the Twin Cities are those with substantial tax bases from wealthy residents – Mahtomedi and Edina, to name the first two. Mahtomedi has an estimated median household income of over $90,000 a year. Is it any surprise that they have the best schools?
Those who reside in wealthy districts with healthy, successful schools often drive the anti-centralization argument. Their fear is not that centralization will yield a sub-par product, but rather that it will require them to share the wealth, as a centralized funding mechanism might require the same amount of money be attached to each student, regardless of his or her geographic location.
A recipe for fairness and equity
The retort, of course, is that sharing the wealth limits one’s ability to maintain high standards at already successful schools. But is success at the cost of the underprivileged worth the risk? Providing equalized funding for schools via a centralized funding scheme is not a recipe for disaster; it’s a recipe for fairness and equity.
Nonetheless, Minnesota has made inequality an acceptable component of its policy for funding education. In Skeen v. State of Minnesota (1993), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that while there is a “fundamental right to a basic level of funding” for schools, that right does not require equality of spending among districts. Therefore, wealthier districts with significant amounts of money (much of it derived from property taxes) have better schools because they are free to do so, while students in poorer districts helplessly find themselves in under-resources schools. And without a centralized funding mechanism for evening out the distribution of dollars, it will stay this way.
With this said, funding public schools in an equitable manner is not only an issue of justice, but one of providing healthy competition. Funding public schools equitably in order to compete with charter schools makes them both better. Under a centralized education system, it is fully possible to continue and allow the proliferation of charters as long as they honor federal standards. The appeal of such “little laboratories of learning” is not in the content they teach, but rather in how they deliver and explore that content.
Same subjects, different vehicles
For example, the Twin Cities is home to several charter schools with a foreign-language focus, including the Twin Cities German Immersion School. Is their student population still learning math? Yes. Are they still learning American history? Yes. The difference is that that they are doing so through the vehicle of another language.
Providing centralized standards and equal funding for public schools only strengthens the choice movement. In doing so, students have two legitimate options for learning – their traditional neighborhood school or a nearby charter school, all of whom are providing a quality education because they are held to the same standards generated by a single, centralized authority.
As a result, low-income students no longer have to place their hopes for an adequate, well-funded education in a lottery. This makes centralization and choice not only compatible, but also natural allies in the fight against education inequality.
Matt Ridenour is a high-school teacher in Minneapolis and a doctoral candidate in education at Hamline University.
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