By Nancy Thorner -
Bruno Behrend, a senior Fellow for Education Policy at The Heartland Institute in Chicago, was one of the featured speakers on Friday, May 15 at the two-day Amplify School Choice conference held in Chicago, organized by Josh Kaib, Assistant Editor of Watchdog Arena, a project of the Franklin Center, located in Alexandria, Virginia.
Behrend gave his unconditional support for "blended learning," a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through the delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media. Through blended learning there is some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace of learning. Blended learning can be effective in traditional “brick-and-mortar” public school when face-to-face classroom methods are combined with computer-mediated activities.
Touted by Behrend was Khan Academy, an all-digital learning site where students can learn at their own pace. Khan Academy is already being used in public schools by students to complete homework assignments. The Khan Academy Internet page states:"You only have to know one thing: You can learn anything. It's Free. For everyone. Forever."
As an example of blended learning, Behrend spoke of a happening in Ethiopia where it took only five months after the installation of computer software for students to learn English without the help of a teacher. Digital learning allows children to learn lots of different things at their own pace, enabling them to learn more when relying on their own ingenuity and curiosity, than when told what to expect from any given situation.
Behrend believes the battle for school choice is in danger of being lost. As stated by Behrend: "It's difficult to beat a failing system if the support level for the status quo system is above 50%."
In referring to an incumbent school district as a district's own system, taxpayers must understand that their existing or incumbent educational system "sucks," he said, a difficult task because of the propensity of trained school official to misrepresent the facts. Above all, Behrend cautioned not to attack teachers, but to instead attack unions when talking about school choice.
He noted these important benefits of school choice:
- Better education.
- More parental support and control.
- Less expensive/More money for learning, not bureaucracy.
- Less government propaganda/indoctrination.
- More freedom.
- More diversity.
The U.S. keeps spending more and more on education, but the results aren't apparent. While the average national per student spending on education is about $12,000, 80% of the expenses incurred by a school district involve teacher and administrative salaries and pensions obligations.
In Illinois, the average teacher salary is $74,000, while the average superintendent makes $124,000. These salaries, however, pale in comparison to teacher and superintendent salaries received by those employed in the upscale and wealthy school districts located in northern Illinois, where it's not uncommon for high school teacher to have a base salary of $115,000.
In commenting about vouchers, Behrend placed a voucher program above that of a charter school. Nevertheless, children in both instances perform better than had been the norm in the replaced schools.
It was not at all surprising when Behrend cited home schooling as the best form of school choice.
Behrend cautioned against using the term “voucher” because of the bad vibes associated with the word by those who insist, among other reasons, that vouchers drain school districts of dollars. So as not to lose the voucher fight, Behrend called for a rehabilitation of the word. Bruno suggested redefining vouchers by calling them “Opportunity Scholarships”, favoring that the money follow the child directly to the provider such as in Education Savings Accounts. This method provides children with a much broader variety of education. It is then possible for parents and students to select from providers that offer every imaginable learning system, from the traditional school to online-schools beaming content to computers on demand.
In speaking convincingly about difference forms of school choice, Behrend didn't mince words when stating that “the Government Education Complex must be killed as it doesn’t represent the interests of the children, parents, or the taxpayers. It has outlived its usefulness. Stop trying to fix it."
Continuing, Behrend noted that the future is already here, although not yet evenly distributed, with a transformation taking place from the 19th century Government Education Complex to a 21st Open Source Learning Network.
With a 21st century network educational system that incorporates blended learning, schools can offer programs that will radically change education for the better, essential to improving this nation's generally low education scores in comparison to other nations. Even when employing incremental steps in education reform, regular evaluations must be conducted to ascertain whether a given reform will actually lead to real transformation. Granted, teacher unions will fight tooth and nail to prevent meaningful school reform from happening.
The following argument position was shared by Behrend as a way to bring individuals around to considering and hopefully accepting school choice: “Do you really wish to fund the system itself instead of the children?”
He described Common Core as the "last dying gasp of centralization." Killing centralization requires undermining the premises of the entire education system that has been accepted since 1840. It won't be easy, but since centralization is already unpopular, winning the debate will be easier than it appears to be. Through offering school choice to parent and children, it will soon become apparent how choice is a much better option for children.
Is it fair that good education is available for the lucky few, while the unlucky remainder get stuck in America's under performing schools which Bruno calls "urban drop-out factories"? School choice could change the present, unacceptable situation.
Another conference speaker, Ted Dabrowski of the Illinois Policy Institute's presentation was featured on Illinois Review earlier this week. In "Thorner: Vouchers in Waukegan? It's a real possibility" special attention was directed at Dabrowski's account of his grassroots voucher program in the depressed city of Waukegan, Illinois -- in association with the IPI -- to give poor and illegal immigrant children a chance to succeed as an alternative to remaining in a failed school system.