America’s disadvantaged children and the three-sector approach

Here follows a statement of principles on the three-sector approach to education reform, which urges charter school supporters to promote vouchers, too—and vice versa. Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn are among its original signers. Add your name today if you agree.

For 50 years, America has struggled to provide low-income students, especially those in inner cities, with high-quality schools. The consequence has been devastating: generational poverty, disenfranchised neighborhoods, and millions of boys and girls robbed of the American Dream.

But we have not been asleep at the switch. Over this half-century, some of our sharpest minds, strongest backs, and deepest pockets have attempted to solve the problem. Decades of effort have been poured into improving district-run schools. Two decades ago, work on a parallel track was launched through the passage of a tax-supported voucher program in Wisconsin and the option to create charter schools in Minnesota. The voucher program provided limited access for low-income parents to send their children to private schools, and the charter school legislation provided for the possibility of the development of new public schools with increased autonomy and accountability.

In spite of all of our best efforts, gains in district schools have been modest. Although chartering has produced many outstanding schools, numerous barriers have impeded the creation of a sufficient number of high-quality charter seats. Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results. So despite the expenditure of enormous personal and financial resources, it is still sadly true today that far too few needy boys and girls have access to great schools.

Those interested in improving the fortunes of these students should share a mindset: we must double down on our efforts to grow the number of high-quality schools available to low-income children. When so many obstacles stand between our young people and a lifetime of success, we simply cannot and must not support only one of the approaches that are available to us.

We strongly support a “three-sector” approach to reform and improvement.

We must push for transformational changes within traditional districts while working to strengthen the other two options.

There is controversy and opposition to each of the strategies, but those involving the private sector create the most angst, particularly those that involved publicly supported programs like vouchers and tax credits. Unfortunately, some of this resistance has come from within our own ranks—those supporting other efforts to improve the educational opportunities available to disadvantaged students.

We believe it is time for members of the reform community to reconsider their opposition to these programs and fully embrace the three-sector approach. Many things have changed since Milwaukee’s voucher program initiated this movement twenty years ago—when many people took hardened positions on this issue.

We know that the Supreme Court of the United States has declared these programs constitutional.

We know from numerous gold-standard studies that these programs help underserved students succeed, especially students of color.

We know that district reform has not led to the improvements needed.

We know that chartering has not created enough high-quality seats.

We know that smart accountability measures can ensure that public money and young lives are not invested in low-performing private schools.

We know that private schools have hundreds of thousands of empty seats available for low-income children today.

We know that these schools can use their additional freedom to engage a wider array of high-quality educators, offer distinctive programs, and make use of emerging technology.

We know that many families want and benefit from the cultural and faith-based elements of some of these schools.

Accordingly, we encourage the education-reform community to embrace the following principles of a three-sector approach.

  1. Our shared goal is to continuously increase the number of students in high-quality schools. We will attempt to achieve this aim through a sector-agnostic approach. High-performing schools of all types should be replicated and expanded. New schools with the promise of outstanding results should be created. Students should have access to high-performing private schools.
  2. Policies should reflect this new vision, including equitable funding formulas that allow education dollars to be easily portable; facility rules enabling new and successful schools to access the space they need; application, enrollment, and assignment systems that facilitate true family choice; and the closure of persistently failing schools.
  3. We should help develop robust support “ecosystems” that bring these new policies to life and help achieve our overarching goal. Nonprofit intermediary organizations can coordinate human-capital strategies, lead advocacy efforts, and fund new-school and school-growth strategies. Other organizations should provide meaningful assistance in a number of areas, including developing teachers and leaders, creating instructional supports, helping with facilities acquisition, providing back-office services, and more.
  4. Only high-quality private schools should be allowed to participate in public programs. This means both “front-end” accountability (making decisions about which schools should be allowed to enter the programs) and “back-end” accountability (assessing a participating school’s performance and making decisions about its continuance in the program).
  5. Private-school accountability systems should balance three sets of considerations. First, because it serves neither the public’s nor students’ interest if a child transfers from a failing, unsafe public school to a similarly struggling private school, low-performing private schools and those with unacceptable financial or operational practices should be excluded from participation. Second, because families prioritize school characteristics differently—and therefore come to different conclusions about what constitutes “high quality”—public determinations of exclusion should be reserved for only the most deficient schools. But to assist families in making the best decisions for their children, the academic, financial, and operational performance of participating schools should be highly transparent. Third, because the independence of private schools should be preserved so they can continue to make use of their autonomy and provide a variety of options, there should be clear limits on government rules influencing their programming. This should include protecting schools’ religious missions, enrollment practices, and staffing policies.

We think these principles will expand the options available to children, ensure these new options are deserving of public dollars and students, and preserve the unique character of the private-school sector. And at a higher level, we believe this approach will enable the reform community to take a sector-agnostic view of schools, focusing on performance rather than operators. This will greatly advance our efforts to continuously grow the number of disadvantaged children in high-performing schools—our shared and ultimate goal.

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