TCS Daily


Restrictive Uniforms

By Frederick M. Hess & Andrew J. Rotherham - January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Perhaps the most encouraging trend in public education today is the growing willingness of educators and policymakers to embrace choices and customization, while turning away from the notion of one-size-fits-all corporatism that dominated 20th century school reform. In education, though, no good deed long goes unpunished. In a barely coherent 5-2 decision, Florida's Supreme Court used recklessly broad language to overturn the state's private school voucher program. In doing so, it set an unfortunate precedent that stretches far beyond the question of school choice.

Florida's Opportunity Scholarship program is the oldest, and smallest, of three private-school choice plans in Florida and has been the focal point of the legal and political battle between school choice proponents and opponents in Florida. In deciding to declare the program unconstitutional, the court read the constitutional requirement that the state provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education" as decreeing a constitutional "uniformity" in operations. The decision was greeted with great fanfare by the National School Boards Association, the NAACP, and the teachers unions.

The ruling's strange logic, however, while a handy tool for rejecting the Florida voucher program, promises to stifle new thinking and creative problem solving. Regardless of what one thinks about school vouchers, this decision is a serious step backwards for school improvement. More than anything else, it is an educational bridge back to the 20th century.

While the majority in the court decision seems not to have thought of it, any effort to honestly or faithfully apply their decision spells a death sentence for a number of popular reforms in Florida and sets an unfortunate precedent for elsewhere. Public charter schooling? Certainly not uniform in provision or operations. Specialty schools and tutoring programs? Neither uniformly available nor operationally standard. Programs for gifted students? Hardly uniform. Efforts by some districts to promote collaborative management, reward outstanding teachers, or adopt new curricular models? None of this is uniform either.

Nor should these or other ideas be uniform. Standardization was a reasonable goal sixty years ago, when fewer than half of Americans graduated high school and attention to sameness may have been the only sensible way to pursue equitable educational provision. We have seen how that experiment turned out, however. It worked okay for many students, especially those in comfortable communities, but standardized schools proved to be profoundly unsuccessful at educating those with nonstandard needs.

Today, educators and education reformers across the political and ideological spectrum recognize that the public policy aim is uniformly excellent schooling -- not uniformity in what those schools look like. In fact, experiences from many of our most successful schools -- ranging from the intensive middle school KIPP Academies, to the public boarding SEED school in Washington DC, to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia -- suggest that excellent schools are almost never uniform.

This shouldn't surprise. The very notion of "uniformity" as an aspiration or standard is impractical and retrograde. In fact, America's best and most creative companies spent the second half of the 20th century shedding the "uniformity" that characterized the assembly line of a 1920s Ford plant. Today, America's greatest success stories are those organizations -- from Google to Habitat for Humanity -- that disdain uniformity and embrace creative problem-solving.

In searching for every conceivable wrench to throw at the Florida voucher program, the Florida decision brings to mind Roe v. Wade. Just as many supporters of a woman's right to choose now realize how the shaky legal reasoning of Roe and the ensuing politics have hurt rather than helped their cause, so those who oppose vouchers but believe in choice and customization may find themselves grasping a Pyrrhic victory in Florida. Let the NAACP and the National School Boards Association beware.

Reasonable people can disagree about school vouchers for various reasons. But to suggest that the Florida constitution's call for a uniform system compels the state to forego sensibly designed educational programs in the name of uniformity is a command that educators abandon creative problem solving for the anachronistic practices of yesteryear.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Andrew J. Rotherham is the co-director of Education Sector and author of the blog Eduwonk.com.


3 Comments

Separate and Unequal
"The very notion of 'uniformity' as an aspiration or standard is impractical and retrograde."

Our Constitutionally protected CIVIL RIGHTS ARE UNIFORM AND STANDARD and are neither impractical nor retrograde. Since the Federal and State governments deemed public education necessary, then by law that education must uniform and standard as well.

In practical terms, this means that local schools must meet state-wide standards and other educational requirements.

U.S. Supreme Court
BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483
Decided May 17, 1954

...We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "SEPERATE BUT EQUAL" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, DEPRIVED OF THE EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS GUARANTEED BY THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=347&invol=483

seperate and unequal
As if public schools could be shown to be equal in quality.

Public Schools
The elitist amongst us keep trying to promote the lie that public education can only happen in publicly owned buildings with public employees running things.

Public education merely means that the public pays, the where is irrelevant.

BTW, most of Europe follows the school choice model, and even our liberal friends acknowledge that they get better education for less money.

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