It’s National School Choice Week 2017, a celebration being promoted on its website as “the largest series of education-related events in U.S. history,” featuring 21,392 total events in all 50 states and 16,777 schools of all types holding events. There are 2,159 home-school groups holding events as well as 1,258 chambers of commerce. More than 600 governors, mayors and county leaders are issuing School Choice Week proclamations. Rallies and special events are being held at 25 state capitol buildings.
It’s quite something.
Why are these exercises held annually? According to the website (boldfaced type from the original):
The goal of National School Choice Week (NSCW) is to raise public awareness of all types of education options for children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and home schooling.
Although traditional public schools — which educate the vast majority of U.S. schoolchildren — are mentioned first, the emphasis of these events wasn’t about fixing the traditional neighborhood public school. That was evident at a rally Tuesday in Washington, where House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) used the occasion to praise Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire nominated by President Trump to be education secretary. DeVos is a longtime advocate for vouchers and charter schools who once called the public education system “a dead end.”
There was talk by other legislators at the rally of “failing” public schools and how to help kids get out of them. How to systemically improve traditional public school districts and institute fair funding systems wasn’t a popular speech topic.
School choice has become increasingly controversial across the country amid the proliferation of charter schools — many of them run by for-profit companies — and voucher/voucher-like programs that use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition.
Choice supporters say that parents — especially but not exclusively those with children in troubled traditional public schools — have a right to send their children to any school they want and the public should pay for it.
Supporters of the traditional system say that while there are some excellent charter schools — which are funded by the public but operated privately — charter and voucher schools don’t generally perform any better than public schools, are not held to the same standards and are not accountable to the public.
Here’s a post, written by Bertis Downs, a parent and a public education activist in Athens, Ga., who asks policymakers so intent on expanding charters and vouchers: “Much of this makes me wonder why our leaders don’t embrace the ‘first choice’ so many parents and teachers advocate: the improvement of all public schools so that there are excellent schools in every neighborhood in America?”
Downs was legal counselor and manager of the band R.E.M., and he spends a great deal of time advocating for public education in Clarke County, where he lives, as well as across the country. He was an adjunct professor teaching entertainment law and music law at the University of Georgia Law School. And he is a board member of the nonprofit education advocacy group Network for Public Education.
By Bertis Downs
This is School Choice Week, the annual exercise when well-funded, corporate school reform outfits pour money into advertising and marketing to promote charter schools as well as vouchers and other programs in which the public pays for private and religious school tuition.
School Choice Week coincides with the confirmation drama of President Trump’s nomination of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary, who has said the public education system in the United States is a “dead end,” and who is seen by critics as a supporter of privatizing public education. DeVos stumbled at her Senate confirmation hearing last week, displaying a lack of understanding of key education issues, and Democrats have sought — unsuccessfully — a second hearing before the Senate Education Committee votes on whether to approve her nomination.
After years of supporting traditional Republican corporate education reform ideas, many Democrats seem to now realize how bad her policies to “voucherize” American education would be for teaching and learning as well as the principle of educational equity. The opposition to DeVos has brought people together across education reform philosophies, a dynamic similar to recent ballot measures in Georgia and Massachusetts, when people of different political beliefs chose local control of public schools rather than increasing the influence of the political and private sector.
Much of this makes me wonder why our elected leaders don’t embrace the “first choice” so many parents and teachers advocate: the improvement of all public schools so that there are excellent schools in every neighborhood in America? After all, the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren attend public schools.
Why aren’t “community schools” — which seek to address the many out-of-school factors that effect achievement — a leading reform choice? Could it be that those are public school models that don’t profit anyone other than the communities of students they educate?
Among the many great things about our country’s public schools is their resilience. Most of our public schools do a good job of educating our nation’s children — despite relentless political and media attacks that blame teachers and schools for poor student performance while ignoring out-of-school factors that affect how children do in school.
My own kids have had caring and committed public school teachers, wonderful extracurricular opportunities, great friends, and bright futures as members of their diverse and challenging school communities (in Georgia in our case). Every student should have that choice. What kids everywhere need is love and support at home and at school, wisdom and inspiration from well-trained teachers, and a rich and diverse curriculum that focuses on them as unique children.
In the era of high-stakes standardized tests — with scores unfairly used to make important decisions about the future of kids, teachers, principals, schools and even districts — many kids have effectively become “testing drones.” Students deserve a curriculum rich in the arts and cultural context. They deserve to attend schools centered in and supported by their community, with enough funding for adequate facilities, reasonable class sizes, and knowledgeable and fulfilled teachers.
These things occur in countries that believe in systemic improvement — and they are possible here too, but only if we have the courage and political will to properly fund school districts, create exciting and smart curriculum and address out-of-school factors that affect student academic performance.
I have no illusions about any of this: What is required is a great deal of work, money, patience, time and priority-setting. There are no easy answers — and empty slogans simply won’t get the job done. There are no silver bullets, no “miracle” schools born from the choice movement.
And there are these questions that beg answers:
*Why should politically active businesses make money from educating our least advantaged children? How is that a good thing for our nation’s future?
*Why should parents who want to send their kids to private and religious schools expect taxpayers to foot the bill?
Betsy DeVos never went to public schools and didn’t send her children to any. When it comes to deciding who I trust to know how to teach children, I choose educators who have devoted their lives to teaching and learning and public service.
School “choice” is the topic of the week, but there are other education choices facing us:
1. The choice the Senate will make in confirming an education secretary. Will senators choose DeVos or will they reject the notion of privatizing public education and ask the president to nominate someone who has devoted their life to educating children and who understands the importance of public education to the future of the United States.
2. The choice those of us who support public schools and effective public education will face if DeVos or someone with her views is confirmed. Who will give up and who will push hard to advocate for the people who most need our support — teachers and students?
3. The choice on where to spend our time and money to support groups that work to protect our schools from the “reform movement” and to advocate for quality schools for all our children. For me, it’s these:
There’s work to do and no time to spare. Our system of public education for all, which helped build this great country, is at stake.