Transformation v. Improvement in Public Education

Amid the hand wringing attending most conversations about the soaring national deficit, one word tends to surface with particular urgency: transformation.  At a moment of dwindling federal resources, many argue, nothing short of a dramatic overhaul of traditional government services is necessary in order to replenish public coffers.  As often as not, moreover, the private market has been identified as the necessary catalyst to trigger such alchemy.

The concept of galvanizing an established approach to social service delivery certainly underlies the Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance (PETRA) Act, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently proposed as a means of channeling additional funding into the country’s cash-starved public housing system.  By inviting private investment—and, some would add, the potential for private ownership—into the domain of public rental housing, HUD has prompted a conversation about the relative merits of security and experimentation in social policy.

A similar debate has emerged with respect to public education, long a breeding ground for market-driven reform proposals. In addition to promoting the expansion of privately administered charter schools, the U.S. Department of Education continues to condition federal funding on such quantifiable measures as standardized test data, an approach that all but ignores the social and economic factors behind educational achievement.  As one analyst has noted, the U.S. has shifted “from a focus on providing equality in the ‘inputs’ of education—family environment, community conditions, and so on… to a focus on providing equality in the ‘outputs.’”

Perhaps the most critical of these inputs is housing stability, a resource increasingly at risk for many low-income families in the current economic climate.  While the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act has done much to enhance educational stability for homeless children, its protections focus chiefly on basic access to the enrollment process.  Once past the schoolhouse gate, however, homeless students are still far more likely than securely housed youth to experience significant educational disruption.

Not only are homeless students four times more likely than their peers to show delayed development and twice as likely to report learning disabilities, they also experience over twice the rate of anxiety and depression as other school-age children.  Based on state assessment tests, only 48% of homeless students are proficient in reading and only 43% in math; 36% of homeless children repeat a grade.

While free market principles may well introduce healthy innovation into the sometimes stagnant world of public services, their application must take account of the full range of social and economic factors that shape educational success.  By regarding the classroom as a self-contained universe in which teacher incentive remains the sole bar to student achievement, the government risks building a well-intentioned policy on faulty and incomplete foundation.  Transforming public education is one thing; improving it, especially for students most in need, is quite another.

-Rachel Natelson, Domestic Violence Staff Attorney

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