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Experts on Vouchers and Charter Schools Offer Suggestions at Agenda Setting Conference for a TC New Research Center

The two-day conference on the agenda for the new National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education was a chance for Henry M. Levin to reverse roles.

Instead of leading the discussion, Levin, who is TC's new William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, spent much of the time listening attentively and taking notes. That's as he intended it.

The goal of the conference was to solicit comments and recommendations from scholars, students, teachers, government officials, philanthropists and others about the issues that should be explored by the new center.

The Center was established to provide a truly non-partisan source of information for educators, lawmakers and the public on privatization in education: what it means for the schools and the children they serve. The Center is being funded through the generosity of the Achelis and Bodman Foundations and the Ford Foundation.

In welcoming the more than 100 conference participants, TC President Arthur Levine, said: "We have conservatives who have looked at vouchers program and never found one that didn't work and liberals who never found one that did work. It's time that we gave this issue an unbiased look."

Professor Levin said: "The biggest question I've gotten so far is 'Can it be done?'"

Levin is an optimist and said emphatically that the answer is yes.

He said the Center will be a lean operation, which will conduct some of its research in partnership with other organizations. He plans to develop a Web site that will provide information on the Center's activities. The Web site will also include a compilation of studies on voucher programs.

Many of the participants at the conference said that a non-partisan source of information on privatization in education is desperately needed.

Frank Newman, President of the Education Commission of the States, urged Levin to be more than unbiased. "You don't want to be neutral," he said. "You want to be objective. Some things are right and some things are wrong."

Two national education writers, Lee D. Mitgang and Christopher V. Connell, explained that the news media struggles to objectively cover voucher plan stories. The pair interviewed veteran education writers across the country and presented their findings as one of the 15 papers submitted for the conference. They discovered that "the voucher argument stands apart as one that provides special challenges for reporters," Connell said.

Joe Williams, who is the resident voucher expert for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, told them that he routinely fields questions from reporters at other newspapers across the country where vouchers have been proposed. Williams told them: "Vouchers are a tough subject, an emotional subject, and it's very hard for a general interest newspaper to wrap its arms around it."

Even among the education press, reporters find it a difficult topic to cover.

Lynn Olson, senior editor of Education Week, told Connell and Mitgang: "One of the hardest things about covering the voucher story is that there aren't any neutral people. There's a feeling that everyone has a vested interest."

Connell added: "What is in short supply are genuinely honest brokers."

Mitgang and Connell said that the Center should also be a source of information about the use of vouchers in other countries that have used them much longer and more broadly than the United States.

Indeed, one participant at the conference was Harry A. Patrinos, an economist in the Human Development Department of The World Bank. Because of the important role education plays in economic development, Patrinos said: "We need to learn more about what's going on in education in the U.S. and other countries."

Another conference panelist, Peter Cookson, who is also Director of the Center of Educational Outreach and Innovation, urged Levin to think creatively about the role his new Center can play in discussions about privatization in education.

Cookson, who has studied school choice for almost a decade, said: "If we let the word privatization set the agenda, then the work to be done is already forecast."

"We shouldn't define this solely as an opportunity to do research. Schools are living organisms," he said, adding, "Research is not value neutral. The most ethical thing you can do is to put that fact up front."

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