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Education Reform Is Awful and Supporters Know It

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With the 2014 election cycle fast approaching, politicians hoping to win re-election are going to be spending a considerable amount of time defending past legislation.

For many Republican legislators, this includes discussion about expanded government involvement in public education, which runs counter to the "small government" and "local control" sensibilities they claim are part of their core ideology. When it comes to education reform, the double standards don't stop there.

Consider the case of two historically conservative Michigan public school districts -- Grosse Pointe and Birmingham. Both public school districts have schools that rank in the top 1% of performance based on the Michigan "top-to-bottom list" that ranks schools according to "student performance in mathematics, reading, writing, science and social studies and graduation rate data."

At the top of many education reformers' wish list is expanding charter schools to give students a choice. The total number of charter schools currently competing with Grosse Pointe and Birmingham public schools is zero.

Charter schools aren't the only way to provide students a choice. Michigan also offers "school of choice" which allows students to attend schools outside of their district.

Grosse Pointe has never participated in school of choice, while Birmingham only recently opted in to the program by offering six 11th grade slots for a school system with over 8,000 students. This move netted Birmingham public schools an additional $430,000 in state funding.

Another education reform idea popular among some conservatives (but not those in the charter school community, which wants more money) is the belief that more money for education doesn't improve results and that teachers are overpaid.

Recent data show that both Grosse Pointe and Birmingham public schools have some of the highest per pupil spending rates in the state while ranking number 4 and 1, respectively, when it comes to teacher pay in Michigan.

Some reformers blame the lagging U.S. test scores on teachers unions, yet teachers in both Grosse Pointe and Birmingham have union representation.

The same is also true of some of the world leaders in education like Korea, Finland and Singapore where the vast majority of teachers are unionized.

If conservative education reform efforts are such an improvement why do communities like Grosse Pointe or Birmingham not take advantage of them?

The Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), which took control of 15 Detroit public schools and handed them over to a privately owned charter school operator is not far from either community.

Have any Grosse Pointe or Birmingham parents chosen to move their students out of the "broken" public education system into an EAA charter school? Do these cities hold rallies asking the school district to consider accepting underprivileged students from outside of their borders? Are parents from these communities arguing for sweeping cuts to teacher pay and education spending? Or do they do the exact opposite?

The answer to these is a resounding no. As with many politically motivated ideas these "solutions" really only apply to the poor because the rich already purchase and restrict access to the best education money can buy.

Data show that while most countries spend more on their most needy students, the U.S. is the worst of a small handful of countries that actually commit less funds to poor schools than to rich schools. The U.S. also values teachers less than most other developed nations.

Relative to the wages for full-time employees with a college degree, the U.S. ranks 22 out of 27 countries for teacher pay. Some nations attempt to attract their best and brightest to a career in education by making teachers one of the highest paid professions. The U.S. ranks near the bottom of the list in terms of pay as a percentage of a country's GDP per capita. This means an American teacher has a lower local purchasing power than teachers in most other countries.

When you consider the fact that American teachers also work more hours per year than every other developed country, it makes an already gloomy story even worse.

Low wages are one of the reasons given by the nearly 50% of American teachers who leave the profession in the first five years. This higher than average turn over rate costs the U.S. over $2 billion a year. Rather than constantly cycling through new teachers -- a pattern which has been shown to be detrimental to educational outcomes -- countries like Korea, Finland, and Singapore, which have turn over rates of 1%, 2% and 3% respectively, all invest more on the front end. This not only saves money in the long run but also improves educational outcomes.

Even if you throw out all of the data showing how other successful countries run their educational system, the biggest problem with the so-called reforms conservatives offer for education is the fact that none of them seem to be good enough for their own kids.

If rich communities are paying teachers more than other school districts and getting good results, perhaps low performing schools should do the same.

If rich communities succeed without the aid of charter schools, perhaps poor districts don't need them either.

If rich communities get results with union teachers, perhaps eliminating unions in impoverished areas won't be the panacea some believe it to be.

If rich communities use higher per pupil funding than most to provide a complete education, perhaps underprivileged districts could use more funds, not less.

If rich communities achieve high scores with few students living in poverty, perhaps addressing the massive poverty rate for the most indigent areas should be a top societal concern.

Cynics say that conservatives push for these changes because they are well aware that they don't work. Keeping poor people trapped in failing schools removes competition for their children down the road. This may or may not be true but one thing is for certain, if any of these reform ideas worked, rich communities would be the first places to implement these changes.

The fact that the well-off go out of their way to keep such reforms far away from their own children tells you all you need to know about the real value of conservative education reform efforts.

Previously published in the Detroit News.