Ty’Sheoma needs choices

Without school choice, Ty’Sheoma Bethea will stay in her second-rate school, writes Jeanne Allen, who runs the Center for Education Reform, in the Washington Post.

Ty’Sheoma is the young lady who sat with first lady Michelle Obama when President Obama spoke to Congress Tuesday night. She had reached the president through a letter about her school, the ceiling that leaks, the walls that shake when trains go by, the poor education it provides.

Ty’Sheoma lives in Dillon, South Carolina, which spends $8,700 — more than the national average — to keep her in that crumbling school. Her junior high has a student-to-staff ratio of 9 to 1, notes Allen.  But it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Ty’Sheoma’s parents have no choice: There are no charter alternatives in Dillon; there are no vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” that would let them consider a private school.  There’s no pressure on the district-run public schools to improve. “If Ty’Sheoma had a choice, maybe we wouldn’t know her at all,” writes Allen.

About Joanne


  1. Does she have a big, glitzy headquarters in Washington D.C.? Does she have a prestigious lobbying firm on retainer? Do politicians worry when she frowns? If the answers to those questions are “no” then she’ll take what she gets.

  2. > Without school choice, Ty’Sheoma Bethea will stay in her second-rate school,

    What does she think would happen if ‘school choice’ should suddenly appear? That this one person – and no other – would go to the first-rate school? No, of course not – but then, would everyone go to the first rate school? No, that wouldn’t work either – there aren’t enough spaces, and creating them would ruin the first-rate school.

    The reasoning, of course, is that choice would create competition, which would magically make underpaid and underfunded schools suddenly become better. As good as the first-rate schools, even – because, otherwise, the logic simply doesn’t work.

    In fact, it doesn’t work at all. The idea if school choice being the answer to someone stuck in a ‘second-rate’ school is a farce. You won’t make all schools first-rate, and you won’t get nearly all of the students into the first rate school.

    The only way school choice makes sense is in supporting the *type* of education that is more appropriate for people (this, though, doesn’t fly with the standards crowd because it allows that people have different learning styles, different needs, different interests, and that these could be served by the school board).

    The fact is, “school choice” – at least how it is being used here – is code for “private”. And these days, the people supporting privatization bear the onus of proof. The privatization crowd has basically wrecked the economy and the parts of the school system they touch – like, say, Edison schools – often end up as a wreck as well.

    There is such a thing as genuine choice. I wrote about it here: http://www.downes.ca/post/44259 But it has nothing to do with privatization, and everything to do with quality education. So it’s probably not of interest here.

  3. Just some fact checks, her schools spends $7100 per student, not $8700 according to GreatSchools.net

    In addition, I’d like some more info. Why does her school have leaky a leaky roof? Is this district too poor to pay for such repairs. If they are, then how is giving money to charter startups going to help.

    What I really suspect is this school isn’t being properly funded, given the fact that 84% of the students are low SES, and 74% are minority.

    If South Carolina is anything like my state of Texas, then there are plenty of unfunded mandates from the state driving costs up.

  4. Stephen –

    A school like that described in the article is not “second rate”, it’s a rathole. Let’s be perfectly honest here. So, what exactly will pressure the school to stop being a rathole? Pressure from the low-SES population which probably has ZERO political clout? A sudden flash of morality on the part of apparently incompetent and self-serving district employees?

    Seriously, Stephen, I’d love to hear what you think, other than pressure from a competing entity, will cause a totally failed school district in a poor neighborhood to improve. If you’re going to suggest that it’s better for all kids to be stuck in government monopoly schools than for some kids to have a chance at better, you damn well better have a good answer for that. And, no, expecting the same people who screwed up to suddenly get better because they have more money or more love is NOT a good answer.

    Seriously, for all the bloviating you do about appropriate education and how you try to portray yourself as being for the kids, why does it always seem that you defend the institution of public education over the educations of individual kids? Or do you think “individual” is as dirty a word as “competition”?

  5. Bill Leonard says:

    “The privatization crowd has basically wrecked the economy …”

    Stephen, I assume from what you’ve written that you approve of The Anointed One’s socialized economy, as evidenced by his proposed budgets — which basically offer $1 trillion/year deficits every year, into the sunset.

    As far as the “privatization crowd” wrecking the economy of the public school system in any state or locality, I think the real blame lies with the teacher’s unions.

  6. Ah the evil teachers’ unions, the ill of all public schools.

    Of course, Texas schools, which happen to be the model for NCLB, have little to brag about, and in Texas teachers’ unions have no bite; teachers are not allowed by law to strike or collective bargain.

    So just what is it then sucking the learning out of Texas schools? How about 16 years of NCLB type reforms, with a boatload of Republicans pushing for charters and privatization?

  7. Terry Pratt says:

    Poor kids need locational choice. How come I never see anyone suggest as much?

  8. When it comes to school choice, teachers’ unions are only doing what they should be doing. They have a specific set of employees they should be advocating for, and school choice endangers the jobs of those employees.

    The mistake people make about teachers’ unions is thinking they actually give a hoot about anything other than teachers’ job security and securing union dues. They don’t care about teachers’ success or failure; and they certainly don’t care about kids’ education. It’s not their job to care.

    What’s needed here is local control of schools, so communities can decide what model works for them. Some places will push for privatization, like D.C. (and it darn well should), while others will opt for a monopoly model. State- and federal-level mandates for school choice won’t work any better than state- and federal-level mandates for a pure monopoly would.

    School choice starts with letting communities have a choice.

  9. Tracy W says:

    The reasoning, of course, is that choice would create competition, which would magically make underpaid and underfunded schools suddenly become better.

    Well firstly, schools aren’t underfunded or underpaid. Within the funding ranges seen in the OECD there is no particular correlation between education spending and outcomes. For example, the USA spends far more on education than most OCED countrie,s but performs worse. See http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/28/34/39254975.xls, http://www.bowgroup.org/harriercollectionitems/Ed%20Spend%20Final.pdf,

    The idea that public schools in the USA are underpaid and underfunded is just wrong and has been amply disproved. But it refuses to die because it serves the interests of a large number of people.

    Secondly, the magic is called competition. Many people, myself included, are inherently lazy, or get easily distracted by personally-interesting projects. The threat of losing funding is a good way to maintain the focus. That’s why the private farms in Russia produced more than the collective farms.

    As good as the first-rate schools, even – because, otherwise, the logic simply doesn’t work.

    This is odd. So you think that education is all relative, that there is absolutely no value in improving education unless it makes the school into the best?

    I don’t follow your logic. I think we should focus on improving all schools. Yes, it would be nice to make all schools first-rate, but if we can’t, why are you so dismissive of the possibility of making all schools at least a bit better?

    The fact is, “school choice” – at least how it is being used here – is code for “private”. And these days, the people supporting privatization bear the onus of proof. The privatization crowd has basically wrecked the economy and the parts of the school system they touch – like, say, Edison schools – often end up as a wreck as well.

    Umm, what are you talking about? The market economies of the world are far richer than the non-market economies. I thought everyone knew that the USA was far richer than the USSR. Yes, we are having a recession at the moment, but nothing like what happens in state-managed countries.

    Stephen, did you go to a private school or a public school? Your comments here indicate such a massive ignorance of the world around you (eg claiming that privitisation wrecked the economy, US public schools are underfunded, not knowing how the magic of competition works) that your answer is likely to change my own opinion about the relative value of private versus public schools.

  10. > School choice starts with letting communities have a choice.

    Sorry, that’s what we’ve already got and while the system worked in a more or less acceptable fashion for some period of time it’s clearly been seized by people whose agenda doesn’t include educating kids to any greater degree then is necessary to keep the system operating.

    The teacher’s unions are among those groups whose interest is only tangentially on educating kids but they’re not the cause of the current situation any more then the maggots that infest road kill are the cause of the stinking corpse.

  11. Andy Freeman says:

    > The privatization crowd has basically wrecked the economy

    In what universe are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “private”?

    In what universe is CRA and punishing banks that don’t loan enough money to folks who have a horrendous default rate “private”?

    In what universe is anything regulated by Dodd, Clinton, and Obama private?

  12. allen –

    All monopolistic bureaucracies will eventually become seized by those who will use them to their own ends. Part of communities having a choice is giving them the ability to kill off their public schools when they become a failure. Unfortunately, in many places, the public schools have the support of the state government which also has an interest in keeping them open.

    One thing that I believe does have to happen with school choice is testing and transparency. Certain parties in education have tried to make it seem like a mysterious art that no outsider could ever understand, and there needs to be a clear mechanism to demystify it and identify which schools work.

    andy –

    I wouldn’t bother. There are two schools of thought on the current crisis. One traces the problems we experienced back to the government through careful consideration of cause and effect. The other reflexively blames the free market as if the last 8 years in the US had been a nightmare of laissez faire capitalism. The latter crowd can’t be reasoned with. Unfortunately, they’re the ones with the reins of the economy right now.

  13. Among the may ridiculous things Stephen Downes wrote was this:

    “The reasoning, of course, is that choice would create competition, which would magically make underpaid and underfunded schools suddenly become better. As good as the first-rate schools, even – because, otherwise, the logic simply doesn’t work.”

    As others have pointed out, there is no strong correlation between school funding and educational outcome. So, above a floor, it is really hard to assert that more money would make a better school.

    Competition is not magic. The virtue of competition is that it concentrates the attention of the supervisors on the task at hand, here, educating the students. Quality is the byproduct of that attention and the hard work that accompanies it. No magic involved.

    School choice has other benefits as well which he desires but dares not attribute to school choice. With sufficient choice, schools can be free to concentrate on different educational paradigms. Want your child to have bilingual education? Send her to a school that offers it. Want your child to have manipulative-heavy math education? Send him to a “progressive” school. Does your child have special needs? Send him to a school that is set up for him.

    Lastly, he sets up a false standard to judge by when he says, “You won’t make all schools first-rate, and you won’t get nearly all of the students into the first rate school.” As he would have it, all the schools would be above average. In fact, there will always be some schools that are better than others, for a variety of reasons. The fact that there will be disparities shouldn’t distract us from the need to make all schools better.

  14. You’re zeroing in on the behavior of monopolies Quincy but your understanding of the practical politics that control public education is flawed.

    If the schools are a failure and that’s widely acknowledged to be true then how will change be effected? If you have to wait around for school board elections then you only have one shot to make any changes per year and in some areas the school boards have staggered elections so a wholesale change might take a couple of years to effect.

    In the meantime, the people who depend on the public education system for their daily bread aren’t sitting on their hands. The people, like the unions for instance, will do everything they can to make sure that their representatives are on the school board.

    If the teacher’s unions prevail, as the more then likely will given their strong motivation, long timeframe, expertise and funding. The school board is stuffed with people who won’t make decisions the union disapproves of. Now what are you going to do to effect change?

    While testing and transparency are important, testing and transparency are what you get from an institution that’s dedicated to the educational process. As it is, who would benefit from testing and transparency? Not the teachers. Not the teacher’s union and not the school board.

    If you want testing and transparency you can get it one of two ways.

    1) get the state legislature to pass law mandating testing and transparency. What emerges from the process will be the result of politics and as Mark Twain observed, those who love the law and sausage should never watch either being made.

    2) alter the structure of public education so that testing and transparency is a good idea and upon which the success of the professionals will hinge.

    Option 1 is the equivalent of pushing on a rope; a frustrating exercise doomed to failure. Option 2 is pulling on a rope. Option 2 is the direction public education is headed with charters and, to a less immediate extent, vouchers.

    Steve. Nice.

  15. allen –

    You’re right, I wasn’t considering the whole picture. Now that I’m thinking more about the politics, I see three separate problems.

    First, most people believe that educators and the schools that train them are professionals who know about what’s been scientifically shown to help kids learn. Most educators have very little idea about that. The difference between the good and bad in educators is their ability and willingness to learn on the job what works and apply that. Great teachers become great because of their time in the classroom as teachers, not students.

    Unfortunately, those who go into teaching in ed schools or school administration never get far enough away from the crap taught in ed schools to achieve greatness. So, we have the worst possible group of people shaping our future teachers and supervising them once in the classroom. This group of people also forms a strong ideological and political bloc that will be looking out for its own interests and fighting tooth and nail against anything that disproves them. When this impulse collides with the faith the general public puts in this group of people, very few are willing to question them or the job they do. No questioning = no pressure for change, even if the schools are demonstrable failures.

    The second problem is that people believe teachers unions have interests beyond increasing membership and dues for the union. They simply don’t give a **** about the kids. Period. Now, the funny thing is they really don’t care much more about the teachers. Public education has one of the most perverse compensation systems imaginable, yet teachers’ unions have teachers and the public suckered into thinking that without them teachers would have it even worse.

    The third problem is the state and federal-level legislation put into place by the political blocs in the first two problems. I’m convinced the entire DoE for the State of California exists solely to keep the ed schools from facing reality and to make sure teachers’ unions have enough dues coming in. Like all regulatory agencies, it has become captured by the very people it was supposed to regulate.

    So, what to do? My personal suggestion would be to target the ed schools first. Alternative certifications are a good start, but what we really need to move forward in education is institutions without the current ideological bias doing research into what really works and educating future teachers in just that. The goal is to create a critical mass of teachers within the system who are professionals dedicated to doing what’s necessary to help all kids learn, even if it means pushing back on school leadership.

    We don’t have the training and development infrastructure to support that, so all the things we learn from school choice and vouchers are wasted. We know what works, but we need teachers who are willing to say what works and willing to challenge anyone who gets in the way of that. We need to break the ed school monopoly, which is enforced by law, before we can seriously consider breaking the public school monopolies.

  16. Small towns in New England have had at least 50 years experience with vouchers. Towns too small to have a high school would provide vouchers which could be used at the high school of the parents’ choice; public, private or parochial. I saw the system at work; my small-school sophomore class lost its voucher students when a regional high school opened in a neighboring town. That school was much bigger and therefore able to offer many more classes. It was also well-known that the school had attracted some of the best teachers from smaller schools, because they could teach only their primary subject, including honors/AP levels.