Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—A Conservative Picks a Path Less Taken

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


A Conservative Picks a Path Less Taken

By Richard Rothstein

Touring South Carolina, John McCain is accompanied by Lisa Keegan, the magnetic schools superintendent from Arizona, his home state, who handles inquiries about his education proposals. Widely admired by conservatives, Ms. Keegan would be on a short list for secretary of education in any Republican administration.

Ms. Keegan has been a conservative flag-bearer in the education wars, demanding publicly financed vouchers for parents to use at private schools. She wants market forces alone to regulate education. She acknowledges that when parents choose a school, it might be better if they knew how it taught reading and math, but she insists that they should nonetheless be allowed to choose on any basis they wish.

In Arizona, she has promoted tax credits for donations to private voucher plans. And last year she received the annual award of a foundation sponsored by the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who has championed privatized schooling since 1955.

But Ms. Keegan could ultimately surprise us, and perhaps herself. When outsiders like her accept real responsibility, solutions that once looked simple to them may no longer seem practical. Now in charge of Arizona’s school accountability, she must decide which schools are successful, and the stakes have become particularly high for her: she has presided over a big expansion of charter schools, and unfair standards would harm charters as well as regular schools.

Ms. Keegan’s challenge is this: to defend low-scoring schools outside the regular system, she is being forced to acknowledge that students’ social and economic hardship, as well as school quality, affects results. This insight is incompatible with the idea, typically advanced by fellow conservatives, that public schools must be failures if they cannot themselves eliminate the rich-poor gap in scores.

More than 30,000 Arizona children are now in charter schools, twice the enrollment share of charter schools in any other state. Charters get state financing and are freed of almost all curricular and personnel rules. In return, they are supposed to achieve, or be closed. The idea is that regular schools, fearing loss of students, will also improve. For such competition to work, the state schools superintendent must report achievement for both regular and charter schools. And because charters promise results, Ms. Keegan plans to recommend closing those that perform poorly.

But which will they be? In Arizona, scores at charter schools are about the same as at regular schools. From 1997 to 1998, regular schools’ fourth-grade math scores rose from the 48th to the 51st national percentile, while charters’ went from the 42nd to the 43rd. In reading, regular schools’ scores were unchanged at the 52nd percentile, but charters’ dropped from the 52nd to the 50th.

This, Ms. Keegan knows, does not mean charters are failing. She professes no concern if a school’s scores are low, provided students’ annual gains compare favorably with gains in schools that have similar students. It is this relative standard that defies conventional clichés. David Garcia, Arizona schools research director, says schools will be compared only with those where students have similar socioeconomic backgrounds or “extenuating circumstances.”

Ms. Keegan is now battling affluent suburban parents who maintain that with scores already high, their schools should not have to post student gains. Not so, she insists. Suburban schools have stayed too comfortable by coasting at the 70th percentile while student achievement stagnates.

Charter schools can be nontraditional. Some recruit dropouts; simply getting many of those youths to stay in class may be a success, and so it would not be fair, Ms. Keegan believes, to judge such schools only by test scores. Her recommendations for closing will consider mitigating factors and emphasize “multiple measures” of success, for regular and charter schools alike. For example, a school might be considered adequate if students, though testing poorly, later succeed at community college.

This is a bold approach. By contrast, Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush, last year gave private vouchers to parents at two low-scoring public school “failures.” Those schools enrolled very poor children, and tried to improve results with innovative programs. Lisa Keegan’s measures might not find failure there. (As in Florida, New York policy makers resist alternative academic measures and now identify school failure by low scores alone, without considering Ms. Keegan’s “mitigating factors.”)

Ms. Keegan has not yet detailed how she will decide whether to call for a school’s closing. She will almost certainly be pressured by critics who contend that she whitewashes schools that serve hard-to-educate children and achieve high gains but low scores. Perhaps she came to these ideas only from a desire to excuse low-scoring charters. But because she takes the challenge so seriously, Lisa Keegan could transform education debates, providing conservatives and liberals common ways to evaluate schools.

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