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Hechinger Institute Considers the Future of the Public Schools

The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media opened a special question-and-answer session at its October seminar to the TC community and the public.

The session was held on October 24 in the Milbank Chapel.

Television journalist John Merrow led a panel of experts through a thorough discussion of public education and how it may change in the future.

The panelists were: Joe Nathan, a leading advocate of charter schools; Tony Rollins, assistant executive director of the National Education Association, which opposes school vouchers; Annette Polly Williams, a state legislator who wrote Wisconsin's school voucher law; and Christopher Whittle, whose for-profit company has won contracts to manage public schools.

To critics, Mr. Rollins represents the status quo in education. But the National Education Association says that teachers' unions are leading the fight for innovation in the classroom. Since 1983, the NEA has spent more than $70 million on research and field projects designed to improve teaching and learning.

Teachers will not, however, jump on a reform train that is traveling at top speed down the wrong track. According to Mr. Rollins and other NEA members, vouchers are the wrong track. They represent "the final act of abandonment" of public schools.

Dr. Nathan, who is the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, said "School choice is a lot like electricity. It is a good idea but it has to be used wisely."

Parents should be given the freedom to select the public school their child attends, Dr. Nathan said. Competition within the public school system would spur reform efforts.

But Wisconsin Representative Williams said that parents need vouchers so that they can send their child to the best school--public or private.

"Low-income families want the best for their children, they just can't afford it. Vouchers empower low-income parents and allow them to shop around to find the best school," she said.

Mr. Whittle is trying to prove that school reform can be profitable. He is the founder of the Edison Project, which contracts with districts to manage public schools.

Mr. Whittle said "Edison is about important new linkages--the merging of public education and entrepreneurism, the convergence of caring and capital, and the coming together or local control and national resources."

The panel discussion was the opening session in a three-day seminar for editorial writers sponsored by the Hechinger Institute. It was the only segment of the three-day seminar that was open to the public.

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