What’s Next in Education: Common Ground or Battle Ground?

Are the right and the left coming together on education policy? President Obama’s budget address is encouraging, if ambiguous.  Looking elsewhere, one also finds mixed signals. Consider the two reports that came out last week, one on charter school segregation by a UCLA group headed by Professor Gary Orfield, the other a Brookings report headed by Grover Whitehurst, the widely respected former head of the Institute of Education Sciences.

If one wants to look for the most solid erection of barriers along traditional battle lines, one needs to search no further than the Orfield report.  Orfield has never seen a school choice program he likes. Suspicious of parents, he thinks either the courts or the federal government, or both, should force children to attend the school he and his elitist friends want them to attend. Orfield’s ideas made some sense 40 years ago when he began writing about persistent segregation in the South. But the scholar remains stuck in the past.  His latest attack report calls charter schools segregated, when in fact no one ever forces anyone to attend them.  Instead, charters are freely chosen–mainly by disadvantaged families of African American background in urban areas.  For parents to choose schools they find better and safer is something Orfield cannot tolerate.

A much more hopeful signal about where the country might be going is provided by the latest Brookings report on choice and competition in education, signed by a group of scholars of various political persuasions and pulled together by Grover Whitehurst. (Truth in advertising: I am a signer of this report.)  This report also supports desegregation but it recognizes that desegregation is best achieved through a fully developed system of choice and competition that includes charter schools, school vouchers, and a well developed system of choice among traditional public schools.  A sophisticated mechanism for informing parents of the schools in their community is recommended.

Brookings has often been the place where left and right have found common ground. Let’s hope the Brookings report, not Orfield’s, is pointing the way to the future.

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