Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, recently wrote about the direction President-Elect Trump appears headed with education. “There are clear indications” she said, “that President Obama’s Race to the Top will be replaced with something that could be called ‘Race to the Bank’, as the movement to privatize education seems certain to accelerate.” Trump’s promise to redirect $20 billion in federal funds (most likely in Title I monies), is a good indication of that desire to accelerate. Of the redirect, Trump himself said, “Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produces better outcomes, and I mean far better outcomes.” Recent studies though, just don’t bear out those “far better outcomes” and although Congress previously considered redirecting Title I funds, they scrapped it with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Nonetheless, Trump seems determined to press ahead as indicated today by his pick of Betsy DeVos, a forceful advocate for private school voucher programs nationwide, as his Secretary of Education. And although his website claims that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time”, the Nation’s leading public education advocate, Diane Ravitch writes, “school choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, as its proponents claim; it is the predictable way to roll back civil rights in our time.” Her words are born out by the fact that segregation in the United States is now the highest it has been since the early 1960s. And to that point, the Arizona Republic writes that vouchers, tax credits and charters are used “by those who least need help”, “siphon money from traditional district schools”, and “are thinly disguised workarounds that wealthy parents can use to keep their kids out of the district schools where students of color are in the majority.” Jeff Bryant, on educationopportunitynetwork.org, writes, “it’s hard to see how a system based on school choice – that so easily accentuates the advantages of the privileged – is going to benefit the whole community, especially those who are the most chronically under-served.” After all, we all know there are plenty of disadvantaged families who will likely never be able to access school choice options, partially because it really is schools’ choice. This reality plays out every day when commercial schools either don’t admit those students they don’t want or, weed them out early on. The desire to not call attention to that truth may be part of the reason we’ve begun to see the rebranding of “school choice” to “parental choice.”
The real problem though is much more than semantics, but what school choice is actually doing to not only our district schools, but our communities as well. Julie Vassilatos, on chicagonow.com, writes that “choice” “quietly diminishes the real power of our democratic voice while it upholds the promise of individual consumer preferences above all else.” (It’s all about me.) The picture she paints of school choice is this: no schoolmates in neighborhoods, children traveling several hours a day to/from school, and “very little political and residential investment in the heart of neighborhood communities.” The school choice model she contends, is “fracturing and breaking down local bonds among families and within neighborhoods.” Could it be that “divide and conquer” is what this is really about? Vassilatos seems to think so contending that, “Democracies require stable communities with strong institutions that are of, by, and for the community. Democracies are built on strong, stable localities.” School choice she claims, is gutting our communities and robbing our voices.
Meanwhile, Carol Burris points out that our Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence, shepherded such a time of gutting and robbing while Governor of Indiana. His voucher program created $53 million in school spending deficits in the last school year alone and the damage continues to this day. If school choice proponents get their way she warns, we could be looking at the same sort of disastrous full-frontal school choice implementation both Chile and Sweden are now trying to dig themselves out of.
We, as a nation, Burris says, need to ask ourselves two important questions. First, do we want to “build our communities, or fracture them?” Second, do we believe “in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds”, or do we want to further segregate our schools by race, income and religion. She contends that we cannot have both and that “true community public schools cannot survive school choice.” I agree with Carol, but it isn’t because the district schools can’t compete. Rather, it is because the deck is stacked against them and politicians and profiteers continue to pile on.
Robin Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which supports many school choice initiatives, said she believe there needs to be a focus on quality: “My fear is [that] a big ideological push for choice as an end, not a means, is a dangerous prospect. It’s not only dangerous for getting schools started that may not be effective, but it’s also dangerous for long-term politics.” Noah Smith on bloomberg.net, basically agrees, if from a different angle. “The evidence is clear that vouchers are a policy with underwhelming potential” he writes, and “if the U.S. cares about academic success, policy makers should focus not on turning the school system into a marketplace, but on reforming existing schools to improve their quality.”
As Arthur Camins points out on HuffingtonPost.com, “there are better choices than school choice to improve education.” Unfortunately, those choices are not the path of least resistance for our politicians and our short attention spans make expediency a winning strategy. Too bad those who have no voice are the ones who will ultimately suffer the most.