School “choice” — the movement to encourage alternatives to traditional public schools — is the watchword in education today because President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are big supporters and have said they want to see it expanded.
Those paying attention to the debate know the general outlines: Supporters say parents should be able to choose their children’s schools, and critics say that choice harms traditional public schools, which educate most of America’s children, and that the movement is aimed at privatizing public education.
Sarah Yost is a National Board-certified teacher of English language arts in her 12th year in education, and she has her own view on school choice and how it affects students like hers. Yost has taught in high-poverty schools and served in a hybrid teacher-leadership role for four years in Louisville. She currently teaches eighth grade at Oldham County Middle School in Kentucky. Here’s her piece on school choice.
By Sarah Yost
After having taught and served in leadership roles for the past 12 years in three public schools, I’ve seen my share of tough kids. There have been heartbreaking cases, like that of DeAnthony, whose mother was in prison for killing one of his friends in a drunk-driving accident. She often wrote him from prison to say that he was the only thing that kept her from killing herself. He worked through his anger in the classroom, sometimes throwing chairs, refusing to work, disrupting, and sometimes targeting students and teachers. Later he would apologize, ashamed, and recommit himself to his work with zeal and concentration. He wanted to be an entrepreneur.
He wasn’t the only student who had something to be angry about. Angela and her six younger siblings were taken from their drug-addicted mother and sent to live with a grandmother who resented having to care for them. Another student, John, hadn’t gone to school until he was 7, when the neighbors called Child Protective Services and he was put in foster care. At 14, he could barely read and struggled to write coherent sentences. Still another student, Adrienne, was obese and sallow, as she subsisted only on fast-food leftovers her mother brought home from her minimum-wage job and on government-subsidized school breakfasts and lunches. On weekends, holidays and snow days, many students like Adrienne went hungry.
I wish I could say they all carried their burdens with grace and poise. Some did, but some, like DeAnthony, could not always control their anger. No matter how intense the occasional emotional flare-ups were, knowing my students’ stories helped me move toward compassion and patience. Their stories also gave me a sense of urgency to learn how to teach them and continuously improve my instruction. These stories and my experiences with my students also led me to study effective systems for behavior and academics that could support teachers serving students who did not come to school ready to learn.
The difference between public schools and private schools is that public schools have a responsibility to all children. That doesn’t mean we have a responsibility only to those who comply, who are motivated, who are well-fed and eager to learn, or even who are intrinsically driven to overcome their obstacles. All students means just that — every growling stomach, every temper tantrum, every child, no matter how inconvenient and ugly the burdens they carry.
In public school, we have a responsibility to the tough kids, too. And where they don’t know how to do something, we must teach them. It behooves us as a society to do so. In a democratic republic where we elect our legislators and government officials, an informed and thinking citizenry is critical.
Improving education leads to greater innovation, greater prosperity and overall social progress. Reaching all students will also reduce crime, prison populations and the draw on government entitlements. It is in everyone’s interest to have strong and effective public schools with high standards for all students and systems of intervention and support to reach those who do not succeed the first time.
What distinguishes public schools from private schools is also what distinguishes public schools from the free market. In the buying and selling of commodities, competition improves quality because consumers have choices. If a car’s transmission notoriously breaks after 5,000 miles, or a brand of deodorant is ineffective, or a cellphone explodes in your hand, consumers can choose better-quality, higher-value brands, and the weaker products can either improve or go out of business.
This model works well for goods and services, but how would it be applied in schools? Some would say that if we give parents choices, they can opt to send their kids to more-effective, higher-performing schools, and the lower-performing schools can either improve or go out of business. But what does this mean on the ground level? Who is affected when schools fail?
Having worked within a school-choice model of magnet schools and magnet programs, I can tell you there is no choice for students without advocates. For those in foster care, or for those whose parents are addicted, deceased, imprisoned, time-poor, have special needs themselves, are nonnative English speakers, or are uninformed and disconnected, there are sometimes no choices but to attend whatever school will take their children.
In our district, these students were rarely assigned to the highest-performing schools, and when they were, they were separated from the students whose parents had applied. In turn, students who underperformed at the top schools were routinely dismissed to the poorer-performing schools. In fact, when I worked in a low-performing, high-poverty school, my fellow educators and I couldn’t help but notice that some of our best-behaved, highest-performing students had often been “kicked out” of magnet schools.
Some may say that this is a fair system and that some parents’ hard work and resourcefulness give their children the direct benefit of a better public school education. But in reality, the students who came to school ready and able to learn were promoted further, and the students who had higher needs were housed together where the needs were so great, well-intentioned teachers and administrators exhausted themselves trying to order the chaos and close the achievement and opportunity gaps.
And when a school can’t make do, can’t meet the intense socio-emotional, behavioral and academic needs of its impoverished, desperately needy student body? Can it just go out of business? The same students will still need teachers, a principal, a school building, social services, academic support and money to pay for this process. In the meantime, another year passes and the gaps widen.
DeAnthony, Angela, John, Adrienne and the hundreds of other students I have known and tried to reach are worth our every effort to create good schools for them. There is a moral imperative in this work. These children are not yet able to fully care for themselves.
How can it be ethical to further reward children already lucky enough to be born to capable, responsible parents who have the means and resources needed to advocate for them? A better model would meet the needs of all students, not only those children who come ready to learn, through systematic supports and interventions. A better model would be rooted in the belief that all kids can learn at high levels, because they can.