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Thursday, January 26, 2012

School Choice Weeek-Missouri Townhall Sponsored by AFP

AFP Missouri put on an event in St. Louis last night for School Choice Week.The panel consisted of Dick Morris, Dana Loesch, Mike Podgursky and Robbyn Wahby. The panel discussion surrounded the choices available, especially in the inner city school systems and ways we can improve not only those choices, but the entire school system. There was much talk surrounding the influence teachers unions have. They influence not only the quality of the learning environment, but also the money in education and how its spent. They also covered the importance of parental and even student involvement in the education process. The consensus seemed to be that while the choice to go to a better performing school or an educational program better tailored to the student needs is important, there was no amount of choice that supplants the parents influence on the child's desire to learn and the effect that has on things like quality of education, graduation rate and even having better choices in available schools.

There was much discussion surrounding inner city schools, the current state of education, and the lack of good choices for families. Dick Morris brought up Detroit city schools. Families looking for good schools and more choices are leaving that city in droves. That reduces the student body and tax base. This often results in teacher lay-offs and larger class sizes-often more than 60 kids. Then because of the ridiculous teachers union rules, what may be a good teacher must be laid-off to keep a vested teacher in his position. At that point teachers unions demand pay raises for the teachers that remain due to increased class size-which the city cannot then afford to give because of the reduced tax base-which results in even more teacher lay-offs. This leaves inner city families with no choice. They end up with a few bad schools that are over-crowed and filled with many teachers who retired years ago but didn't bother to tell anyone.

In many ways we are facing some of these same choices in our own city schools here in St. Louis. Robbyn Wahby points out that in St. Louis City lost about 22,000 children (and their tax paying families) since the last census. Those families are leaving the city for the suburbs where they have true choice and better public schools. Interestingly, the population of young adults without kids has increased in St. Louis. This would indicate our city does have culture and other qualities that can be used to attract families-we just have to make it top priority to find and retain quality teachers and run quality schools. Dana Loesch says that part of that reform must involve reforming the teachers unions and the way they work. She related a personal story about a young energetic teacher who was very popular in her high school. This teacher used lots of applied learning (hands on) and was a great teacher. The union came in and told her to "tone it down" because she was angering the older, less energetic teachers who had already established the "proper" way to teach. Putting the kibosh in new ways to teach and maligning fresh young teachers has long been practiced in teachers unions across the country. For those teachers, all the talk of "the children" is just that, talk. They care nothing about the children, they care only for their cushy jobs and sweet pension.

So, what are some of the solutions? Parental and student involvement is a huge factor in the success of students. Alternative schools, such as Loyola Academy where this event was held, involve the kids and the parents fully in the education of the student. Kids who could otherwise never afford a college prep school are given the chance to beat the odds. Before students are admitted they are interviewed and told the expectation of the school. Parents get a similar treatment. Parents are expected to volunteer many hours throughout the school year and less than 100% from either the parent or child is not good enough. Loyola has it right. They are a private school-they have the ability to set standards and expectations, then hold parents and students accountable. Their way is working for at-risk kids in the inner city. When a program works, parents spread the word and enrollment increases. If we had good choices in schools, those schools would survive because families would not move out of the area to get the programs they need for their kids.

The President of Loyola Academy says they are not saving students, they are empowering them to be successful. All of our schools need this attitude. We need schools that don't simply act as holding cells between the hours of 7:30 and 2:30 Monday thru Friday. We need schools that empower children and involve parents. We need schools that hire quality teachers and have a mechanism to rid themselves of ineffective or even down-right abusive teachers.  We need metrics that measure results and then the guts to close schools and re-engineer school districts to fix actual problems. Failing teachers and failing schools must go. There must be an effective, results oriented way to deal with these issues.

At the end of the panel discussion, they wrapped up with a few final thoughts. Robbyn Wahby reminds us that any good idea is twice as likely to succeed with good support systems. If we have ideas we want implemented or we feel the mayors office is promoting good choices in education, we can support that effort by making it known we support it and doing things that promote the choice. Dana Loesch thinks good choices in schools are extremely important, but that getting the unelected federal bureaucracy out of our local schools is also imperative. We have standards decided and implemented at the federal level-things like Common Core Standards and Longitudinal Data Systems-that influence the meat of what our children are being taught, yet we have no say so in what is included in those standards. Finally, Dick Morris says we are in the middle of an education revolution. In 2010 through 2014 we will see a time of great change to our educational system, at this time Missouri is not leading the charge on this, but we could be. It is time to grab the reins and lead the charge for the future of our children's education.

Thanks to Americans for Prosperity for bringing this event to St. Louis. Thanks to Loyola Academy for hosting this event. (They survive on 100% donations, please consider donating) And big thanks to all the guests for their excellent and informative panel on what St. Louis can do to improve the choices for our students.

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