In 2012, former Florida governor Jeb Bush gave a speech in which he likened shopping for a school to selecting milk in a grocery store:
Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose. Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2 percent milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla — and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?
On Wednesday, his ally, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, did something similar. DeVos, who like Bush is a fervent believer in school choice, compared selecting a school to choosing among ride-providing options. She made the comment as part of a speech she delivered at the nonprofit Brookings Institution, which unveiled its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, its ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts. It was written by Brookings senior fellow Russ Whitehurst.
School choice activists who have worked to inject business principles into the operation of public schools say that competition will force all schools to improve. There isn’t any serious evidence that this is true, but this is one tenet of some proponents.
Here is a transcript of her remarks, as prepared for delivery and provided by the U.S. Education Department:
Thank you, Russ, for that kind introduction, and thank you for your work to develop this important report. And thank you to all of you for taking the time to come here today.
This report focuses on something everyone here knows I’m passionate about: increasing education options for parents and students. It’s something I view as a fundamental right too long denied to too many kids. My views on this were shaped early on in my time as a mother.
This experience led me to the following conclusions:
First, parents know what is best for their kids. No parent should be denied the opportunity to send his or her son or daughter to a school with confidence that he or she can learn, grow and be safe.
Secondly, good teachers know what’s best for the students in their classrooms. Teachers deserve more respect than many give them, and more opportunities than the system affords them today.
And thirdly, state and local leaders are best equipped to address the unique challenges and opportunities they face, not the federal government. Locally driven innovation and customization are far more likely to generate meaningful results than are top-down mandates.
I am in favor of increased choice, but I’m not in favor of any one form of choice over another. I’m simply in favor of giving parents more and better options to find an environment that will set their child up for success.
I’m opposed to any parents feeling trapped or, worse yet, feeling that they can’t offer their child the education they wish they could. It shouldn’t matter what type of school a student attends, so long as the school is the right fit for that student.
Our nation’s commitment is to provide a quality education to every child to serve the public, common good. Accordingly, we must shift the paradigm to think of education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings.
Let me say it again: we must change the way we think about funding education and instead invest in children, not in buildings.
There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all system of education: A magnet school is not inherently better than a traditional school, nor is education at a private school inherently better than education at a charter school.
Similarly, there is no one delivery mechanism of education choice: Open enrollment, tax credits, home schools, magnets, charters, virtual schools, education savings accounts and choices not yet developed all have their place, but no single one of these is always the right delivery method for each child.
Policymakers at every level of government would do well to maintain a humble acknowledgement of these facts. Let’s put aside the politics of the adults and actually focus on what will best serve kids.
And that’s what brings us here today. Too much of the conversation on education loses sight of the thing that matters most: the individual child. This report sheds light on how districts are providing choices and information to parents and opportunities to students.
The Education Choice and Competition Index is important, and unique, because it’s very parent-centric. Parents are the first and primary point of accountability. The report makes the distinction that simply having a choice program is not enough: It must be accessible, transparent and accountable to those who need it most.
I’m glad Russ has highlighted such districts as Mobile, Alabama, that nominally provide choice but don’t give parents adequate tools to take advantage of the program. As a parent, you can’t take advantage of a choice you don’t know exists. We need to find ways of better connecting citizens to the information they need.
The report notes that Mobile is not alone: 26 other districts, nearly a quarter of those surveyed, receive a letter grade of F on the report’s scale – meaning they provide few to no tangible school options. There is clearly a long way to go for many school districts, and I’m hopeful that this report will help light a fire under them to better serve students.
While we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.
The two-highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive A’s, but they arrive there in very different ways.
New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents: All of its public schools are charters, and there is a good supply of affordable private schools. The state also provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.
Meanwhile, Denver scored well because the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.
Russ has mentioned this, but I think it’s worth repeating that, even though a district may place well on the competition index, the letter grade does not necessarily reflect the state of education within that district.
The benefits of making options “accessible” are cancelled out when you don’t have a full menu of options.
Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter, just as accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.
Consider Chicago. Chicago received a B on the index, and improved its score because it now includes data on student growth on its website. While this is all well and good, we cannot pretend that Chicago’s education is “above average” for the tens of thousands of students being left behind.
One example is Marilyn Rhames and her daughter.
Some of you may have read Marilyn’s firsthand account.
When Marilyn taught at their neighborhood school, she enrolled her oldest daughter there to remind herself to treat her students as if each of them was one of her own kids.
When she tried to raise objections with the school as a parent, she was fired as a teacher. So she took a job at a charter school and brought her daughter with her. Marilyn’s oldest daughter graduated from the charter school, but her youngest daughter was struggling there.
She considered the neighborhood school again, but that school failed to meet the family’s needs.
Marilyn finally found an independent, classical private school that she says could celebrate her daughter’s heritage while instilling the academic discipline needed to succeed. Marilyn wrote that while she may wish her tax dollars went to a rigorous district school that could fit her child’s needs, the fact is that they simply haven’t. In her own words, “Siding with my child is an unalienable right … My only real school choice right now is private.”
For Marilyn, there was really only one choice that allowed her to meet her daughter’s needs. The index may have given Chicago a B score, but can we really claim that Marilyn had plenty of quality options?
Separately, the report argues that “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model.”
Many would read this and conclude that such alternatives (or choices) are destructive of traditional public schools and of the students they serve. But I would argue that these alternatives are constructive, not destructive, for students, parents and teachers.
Let me offer this example from a different part of our daily lives.
How many of you got here today in an Uber, or Lyft, or another ridesharing service? Did you choose that because it was more convenient than hoping a taxi would drive by? Even if you didn’t use a ridesharing service, I’m sure most of you at least have the app on your phone.
Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice. In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.
Nobody mandates that you take an Uber over a taxi, nor should they. But if you think ridesharing is the best option for you, the government shouldn’t get in your way.
The truth is that in practice, people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.
We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging. But doesn’t that pale in comparison to the importance of educating the future of our country? Why do we not allow parents to exercise that same right to choice in the education of their child?
The reflexive question asked, often politely, by critics of choice is why should we not simply fix the broken schools first? If only schools received more funding, they say, the schools could provide a better learning environment for those being left behind.
But of course we’ve already tried that, and it’s proven not to work. We know because it was a signature plank of the previous administration’s education agenda: the School Improvement Grants (SIG).
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said just last year that the SIG program was their “biggest bet” on education.
Well he was right on one thing: The size of the bet certainly was big. The administration ended up spending $7 billion on trying to fix targeted schools.
It’s interesting that the previous administration waited until January 18 of this year to release the final results of its “biggest bet.” The report, released by the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, stated, “Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”
“No significant impact.”
At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution? I’m not trying to vilify the motives of SIG’s backers. But good intentions and billions of dollars clearly aren’t enough to give students what they need to succeed.
Let me be clear, if we can identify a school turnaround model that shows promise, I want to learn about it. If we find a solution that demonstrates consistent results, I want to support it. But waiting and hoping for a miracle, while blocking efforts that can help millions of children immediately, is simply not something this administration will abide.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s not policymaking.
Neither is education reform without changing the culture around education.
Changing the culture starts with shifting away from an “us versus them” mentality. The focus shouldn’t be on whether we have a “public” system, “private” system, “charter” system, “virtual” system: It should be about the child, and about what is best for each individual student.
It’s important to remember that statistics aren’t just numbers, they represent real people. I’ve been with them in their schools and heard their concerns.
Last week, when I was at a student roundtable at Valencia College, one student told his own story, and it pained me to hear it.
His name is Michael B. Michael grew up in East Hartford, Connecticut, in a low-income neighborhood. He was an average student throughout elementary and middle school, but that all changed when he started ninth grade at the district high school.
Michael described a school where students were the real ones in charge of the class, and they would make it impossible for the teachers to teach.
He was constantly bullied and became afraid of even using the bathroom at school. This constant fear made him hate school and made it impossible for him to focus on learning. He said, and I quote, “It was nothing more than adult day care … a dangerous daycare.”
But, even though he was failing, the school still gave him passing grades – D-minuses – and so he felt that he was no better than a D-minus student.
Fast-forward some years, and Michael is a veteran of Afghanistan, married with three young daughters. He was working as a bell man at a hotel in Florida. He enjoyed the work, but one day his wife asked, “Do you want to be a bell man for the rest of your life?”
He was afraid to try something different, but with his wife’s encouragement, he was inspired.
Michael got an A in his first class. He thought it was a fluke until he continued to earn straight A’s. He’s now in the school’s honors program with a 3.8 GPA, and is finishing his pre-requisite classes to be a nurse, with the goal of working in an emergency room.
He’s on the path to realizing his dream, and Valencia College gave him that second chance.
But Michael still worries for his daughters and other young children in America. He doesn’t want them to go through what he did, trapped in an environment where he felt unsafe and learned nothing. That’s why he asked me a question that fuels my passion, “What are you going to do to change the culture of these schools?”
The culture he is talking about defends a system at the expense of the very students it is supposed to serve.
This is a problem we can’t spend our way out of.
We can change the culture by embracing innovative disruptors and empowering parents and students with choice.
I think we need to change the conversation from how we invest in schools, and what types of schools we invest in, to investing in students. At the end of the day, if the finest school building with the best teachers isn’t educating all of its individual students effectively, that school is failing those students.
The education debate needs to be student-centric. Period.
As Russ says in his report, choice alone is not a panacea, but there is evidence it works. It works for millions of students, through inner district choice, public school choice, public charter schools, private school choice, and virtual and home schooling.
And it could work for millions of more students if more options were made available.
It is an understatement to say that such a culture shift could be accomplished alone.
If we truly want to improve education for children, we need to come together.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we should not pretend that the status quo is acceptable. Because even one more Michael, one more painful story about the failure of the system is unacceptable. And the reality is there are Michaels in classrooms or Michaels who have dropped out, all across this country.
So I urge us to come together to embrace policies that actually empower parents and give kids an equal shot at the quality education they deserve. It is the right and just thing to do.