Supporters of charter schools rally at the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Speakers at the rally said they’ll push lawmakers to increase funding for charters. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

This past week was School Choice Week with no less than 16,140 events held across all 50 states, according to the School Choice Week websites.  They took place in 13,224 schools, with 1,012 chambers of commerce and 808 homeschooling groups staging events too. Twenty seven governors and more than 200 mayors/county leaders issuing proclamations to recognize School Choice Week, and, to top it off, there were rallies and special events at 20 state house buildings.

What is the purpose of the week? According to the website, to shine “a positive spotlight on effective education options for every child.”  (Of course School Choice Week wouldn’t want to shine a spotlight on the many problems with school choice, including poorly operated charter schools and voucher programs that allow kids to go to sub-par schools.)

School choice proponents say that charter schools (including ones run by for-profit companies) offer parents important options for their children’s education and that traditional public schools have failed in many places. School choice opponents say that school choice is aimed at privatizing the public education system and that many of the choices being offered are not well-regulated, sometimes discriminatory and siphon funding away from local school districts.

So many activities need support, obviously, and School Choice Week had scores of educational, philanthropic, faith-based, school-based, business and other partners, as you can see here, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Walton Family Foundation, the Florida Department of Education, Harold Ford Jr. (as an individual), American Federation for Children, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Democrats for Education Reform, Choice Media,and StudentsFirst.

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis held a National School Choice forum, and one spectator was shocked at what she heard. She is Sarah Lahm, a former teacher who is now a Minneapolis-based writer. Here is her account of the forum, and following that is a response from Laura Bloomberg, associate dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. A version of this post  appeared on Lahm’s Bright Lights Small City blog, and I am publishing it with permission. You can watch the video of the forum at the end of the post.

By Sarah Lahm

What passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric is frightening.

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, I attended a National School Choice Week forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I went expecting a pro-school choice event, obviously, but, since the Humphrey School is one of the nation’s premier public policy graduate schools, I also expected a reasonable look at the choice movement in education.

What I found instead was appalling to me. The Humphrey School’s event was billed as “bipartisan,” but I quickly realized how thoroughly that word has become cover for groupthink. If both Democrats and Republicans support the dismantling of our public institutions, then shouldn’t you, too?

Let me explain. The Humphrey School event was moderated by former MinnPost education writer, Beth Hawkins. Hawkins was joined onstage — billed as an “informative discussion” — by Ember Reichgott Junge, former Democratic state senator and charter school pioneer; Jennifer Loon, Republican state legislator and education finance committee chair; and Richard Komer of the Virginia-based right-wing group, the Institute for Justice.

One Democrat plus one right-leaning Republican plus one far-right lawyer (Komer) does not add up to a “bipartisan” panel, in my opinion.

The panel ended up being all white, too, when invited African-American guest, George Parker, who works for the Michelle Rhee-created education reform group, StudentsFirst, was not able to make it. The whole room was white, as far as I could see. The audience was formally dressed, and included some state legislators. David Hann, a Republican from suburban Eden Prairie, was acknowledged, as were others.

The morning’s panel began with a quick dismissal of the desegregation lawsuit filed in Minnesota last fall, which, if successful, could require the state’s charter schools to develop and implement integration plans. The panelists seemed to agree that the resegregation happening across the country now is simply due to “parental choice.” Reichgott Junge — the Democrat — declared herself “not neutral” on this topic, and told the audience not to worry because “this is not the civil rights era.”

There was something very odd about this event to me. We were sitting in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Humphrey! He was one of Minnesota’s leading advocates — and most eloquent agitators — for civil rights, back when such views posed a direct threat to the Democratic party, which had grown quite comfortable with the racist “states’ rights” rhetoric of its Southern segregationist members.

Is any attempt to regulate charter schools a “frontal attack on choice,” as Hawkins said? Really? Is there any room, at all, on the school choice bandwagon for critical thinking?

Is there any safe place to express concern that the rapid resegregation of our public school system is not a happy accident, brought on by the heavenly solution of school choice?

Apparently not at the Humphrey School’s National School Choice Week forum.

As I left the forum, I could not stop thinking about Humphrey and his legacy. Back in front of my computer, I found a 2011 New York Times opinion piece about him, written by Rick Perlstein. Both Humphrey and Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 in 2011, and this connection, and contrast, framed Perlstein’s piece.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

JANUARY was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the planet nearly stopped turning on its axis to recognize the occasion. Today is the 100th anniversary of Hubert H. Humphrey’s birth, and no one besides me seems to have noticed.

That such a central figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad. But his diminution is also, more importantly, an impediment to understanding our current malaise as a nation, and how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.

That’s it. This is the framework I have been looking for. What would our education policy discussions be like today, if America had turned out “less Reaganite” and “more Humphreyish”? The hammering narrative of failure, applied with force to our nation’s public school system, found fertile ground in the Reagan era, of course, through the hyped “Nation at Risk” report. That report helped propel America away from further investment in public schools, and towards school choice schemes (hint: privatization).

Deregulation, Perlstein calls it. And that was the flavor of the day at the Humphrey School’s event. Deregulation in the education “marketplace” will solve our problems. In fact, according to the “bipartisan” panel, there is nothing a deregulated, choice-based education system cannot solve. Universal preschool? Great idea, said Reichgott Junge, but too expensive. Let’s charterize the preschool market, instead, and throw some scholarships, otherwise known as vouchers, on top of it.

And while we are at it, perhaps we should follow panelist Richard Komer’s line of thinking, regarding the Constitution. Komer waxed enthusiastic about all of the wonderful things a deregulated, voucher-filled education landscape could offer–including more discipline, more uniforms, more religion, and more racist, elitist assumptions about what “poor minorities” want. Public schools could do this, too, he said, if only the Constitution was not standing in the way.

And no one in the room, no one gathered in the Humphrey School (except for one clear outsider who was swiftly dismissed), stood up or spoke up to challenge the frightening threads so visible in these ideas.

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money

—The Clash, White Man in Hammersmith Palais

Here’s an e-mailed response from Laura Bloomberg, associate dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs:

Like so many pressing policy issues, questions surrounding school choice are controversial. Concerned people on all sides of this issue care deeply about the education of children yet differ wildly in their beliefs about the best way to ensure a school system where all students can thrive. The fact that this writer does not agree with the views of the panelists does not in itself concern or surprise me. In any given week we host countless public (not closed door) events at the School, and the views represented span the political spectrum. The door is always open when we host public events and typically the audience is invited to chime in with questions and statements of their own. This is what should happen at a publicly-engaged School of Public Affairs and not everyone will agree with or support every policy perspective presented. We welcome the dissent and believe our namesake would approve.

I do, however, share the writer’s disappointment that Tuesday’s speakers and audience did not reflect the racial diversity of our community or the diversity of those advocating for school choice. We had no control over the east coast snowstorm that grounded our keynote speaker (an African American educator who is a staunch advocate for school choice), but we could–and should–ensure that we do everything possible to make our public events welcoming and accessible to everyone in the community. Although the Humphrey School hosts events at all times of the day and all days of the week, this particular Forum was mid-morning on a week day and the writer is correct–this does not work for many people. As with most pressing policy issues, we will continue to convene the public and thought leaders to explore several facets of education policy from multiple viewpoints–and will do our best to offer these opportunities across multiple formats, times and locations.

The forum: