Perhaps Gov. Bobby Jindal would not appreciate the source of the quotation, but there is a Chinese saying used by Communist leaders many years ago: Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Thank you, Chairman Mao and Co., for one pithy line that encompasses what Jindal calls transformational reforms in public education, including taxpayer-funded “scholarships” for tuition to private and religious schools.
The program for tuition vouchers is relatively small so far, as there are few places in high-quality private schools, and some of the schools applying for larger numbers of vouchers have been found to have such glaring educational deficiencies that even Jindal’s Department of Education could not overlook, once reporters began to file stories about private “schools” with no libraries and few teachers.
However, if you want to look at where literally thousands of flowers might bloom in the new dawn of free-market educational management, it is in the online program now being rolled out as “customized choice” for students, in the phrase used by state Superintendent John White.
Who is against choice? We aren’t, so long as it’s properly financed, and properly supervised for effectiveness. Jindal’s tax cuts have left little room in the state budget for education, so every private-sector flower that the new plans seek to cultivate must be watered from the MFP — the Minimum Foundation Program. The MFP is constitutionally dedicated to public schools, but that obvious problem — inspiring lawsuits from teacher unions — was not allowed to stand in the way of vouchers, or using the public funds for private educational options.
Much of what “customized choice” so far involves seems to be good ideas. We like the idea that a gifted student or two in a rural school should have an online option for calculus courses.
And we believe that traditional public schools — long used to the MFP as “their” money — have been less than innovative in pushing these kind of options. For one thing, there is a question of financing: What parish pays for the teacher who supervises the three-student class in a rural high school? The parish where the course is offered, or the parish employing the calculus teacher? And who pays for the cost of the on-site teacher who is at least some of the time making sure the online coursework is completed?
These kinds of small but financially significant questions have stood in the way of innovation. Sure, such questions could be resolved, but all too often it was too much trouble for local systems.
Yet we are concerned that there are qualitative and quantitative differences with “customized choice,” not only in giving private providers money from financially hard-pressed existing schools. There is also the question of courses controlled not by local systems responsible for student achievement, but the state Department of Education and private providers, some of them national companies that can have outsized influence with political policymakers.
The department plans to send requests for proposals from course providers in July, and then have them reviewed by officials of the department, an independent panel of experts and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The new courses would be available for the 2013-14 school year. We can only trust that the state department will demand accountability for academic rigor and performance by the private providers.
Still, the courses will be paid for — assuming the courts do not intervene — by taking dollars from the MFP. One of the important questions with this great leap forward: Will public funds not only be diverted to private and religious schools one student at a time, but even one course at a time?
A state official suggested that a student must take only one course at his local school to qualify for MFP-funded courses for the rest of his schedule. This sounds like a stretch to us.
Quality is foremost in our concerns.
Letting a thousand flowers bloom might be a recipe for weeds, unless there are a committed and diligent gardeners in the form of state and local educators making sure a new system works for students, and not for private providers with a stake in milking the MFP cow.