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Free Market Shake Up in Public Education Creates Success, Roils Establishment

On the occasion of Milton Friedman’s 101st birthday, a protégé of Friedman’s who put some of the great economist’s ideas about education into practice with incredible success, was the featured speaker at the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s July 2013 Policy Luncheon. Ben Chavis discussed Friedman, his school, its success and the campaign against him to the think-tank’s guests.

“Milton Friedman was one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met,” the former principal of the American Indian Public Charter school in Oakland, CA says of the economist.

AIPC, which is open to students of all ethnic backgrounds, was named number one in the nation by the Washington Post’s America’s Most Challenging High Schools even though its students are some of the poorest, with 81% qualifying for subsidized lunches.

By contrast, the top-rated school in Nevada is the Coral Academy of Science Charter in Reno, ranked #284.

Despite the success, or because of it according to Chavis, he has been a target of the education establishment. Oakland’s school board is attempting to shut the school down and is chasing Chavis in court.

In addition, he says both the Oakland School District and the California teachers union have accused him of undermining public education. Chavis pleads guilty to that particular allegation, replying that, even if people tried they “couldn’t design a better system to destroy our kids” than the American public school system. He points out some of the absurdities in the system, including federal laws that reward failing schools with more money. “If our kids fail, we give [the schools] more money,” he states.

When early in his teaching career Chavis held a non-performing student back, he claims he was told by his principal, “We don’t retain kids. It’s bad for their self-esteem.” His experiences inside the system made him a vocal advocate for school choice and motivated him to do things differently.

The success of the AIPC is built on four concepts – accountability, high expectations, family and free market capitalism.

When taking charge of the school Chavis had to deal with extremely poor attendance not only by students but teachers as well. He instituted a system to reward students and teachers monetarily for perfect attendance.

Chavis increased the school year from 180 days to 205 days and required the teachers to teach summer school. But he also paid teachers the highest salaries in Oakland.

His approach encourages family involvement, not just of the immediate family of the students, many of whom are from broken homes, but from the extended family. He explains how he’ll often call the grandmother rather than the mother of a student.

Chavis’s school also implements the tenets of free market capitalism. The school pays students and teachers for perfect attendance. Students take the SAT as freshmen and every student takes an Advanced Placement course and is paid to pass it.

Instead of grouping students in classes together randomly, AIPC groups students, at least in the first year, by aptitude. In addition, teachers stay with students from 6th through 8th grades. By that time, most in the lowest-performing group have caught up to those in the top group from years before.

He traces his admiration of the free market back to his days running track in high school, a sport he took up after he being told it could lead to a college scholarship and the opportunity to “meet girls.” In track, “we all started on the same line,” Chavis relates, regardless of race or any other factor.

“The clock is objective,” he adds.

Michael Chamberlain

Michael Chamberlain is the Editor of Watchdog Wire - Nevada. Please contact him at Nevada@watchdogwire.com for story ideas or to get involved in citizen journalism in Nevada.

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