The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want

Jeff Bryant

It’s that time of year when National School Choice Week is staged by – well, we really don’t know who – to elevate “education options,” primarily charter schools and vouchers, for K-12 students.

This year’s NSCW apparently includes a record number of events around the country. A stirring video put out by the organizers kicked off the week with an invitation to engage in “the largest series of educational events in American history.” Images of the American flag intermingle with the official bright yellow scarf the celebrants don. There’s even an official song and dance.

But this year’s celebration of “choice” plays out against a more compelling national news story in Detroit, where teachers have been staging a series of “sickouts” to protest the deplorable conditions in their public schools. Most recently, students joined in the protests, walking out of class and defying warnings from administrators that they could face suspensions for exercising their free speech.

“We deserve books, we deserve money, we deserve better education,” said one of the students.

So what we see in Detroit is increasing evidence of the “school choice” American communities really have, especially in low-income communities of color. What kind of “choice” is this?

What Does Choice Mean?

So who is behind National School Choice Week and what do they want?

The week is backed by numerous right-wing organizations “that support a range of efforts to divert funding from public schools,” according to People for the American Way.

Among those supporters, PFAW finds numerous politically conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that crafts extremist legislation for state and local lawmakers; groups that are part of the Koch bothers network, such as Americans for Prosperity; and private foundations, such as the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame) that spend millions on expanding charter schools. “According to PFAW, a spokesperson for NSCW said, “The group’s operational budget is covered by ‘private philanthropic foundations’ but did not provide any details.”

Drilling down into the rhetoric of these events, the range of “choices” being promoted is pretty narrow – mostly charter schools and vouchers or variations of vouchers. A quick perusal of the more than 1,600 events scheduled on the NSCW website found the sites are mostly at charter schools and private schools. And the rhetoric you hear overwhelmingly emphasizes these education providers.

At a school choice event in Indiana, Governor Mike Pence hailed “the dramatic growth of charter schools and vouchers,” according to a local media outlet. In North Carolina, proponents of school choice added homeschooling to the mix of charters and vouchers they were advancing.

On his website, Republican Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Johnson’s “official comment on National School Choice Week” touts “the increasingly high demand nationwide for charter schools and private school choice programs” as evidence of growing popularity for choice. In a video, Texas U.S. Senator and Republican Party presidential candidate Ted Cruz proclaimed school choice “the civil rights issue of our time” and called for instant relief for the “more than one million children” on charter school waiting lists.

Rob Schofield, for a North Carolina left-leaning advocacy NC Policy Watch, calls the whole affair “wildly, even laughably, deceptive,” as those intent on privatizing public education apply a gloss of choice and freedom to the “growing diversion of taxpayer dollars to charter schools and school vouchers.”

The PFAW folks point to a piece written by its president Michael Keegan at The Huffington Post that asks, “what does school choice mean?” For those participating in National School Choice Week, Keegan writes, the intent of advancing “choice” is no doubt to proliferate alternatives to public schools rather than to build up the available choices within the public system.

That’s certainly what’s been happening in Detroit.

Choice For Who?

While the gruesome details of physical conditions of Detroit schools were being displayed across the Internet, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder kicked off Michigan School Choice Week, according to a local media source, to brag about the states’ efforts to expand charter schools.

Rapid expansions of charter schools in the Great Lakes State has Snyder’s signature all over it. According to a charter industry source, Michigan has the fifth most charter school students in the country at 159,000. Most of these schools are for-profit.

In 2014, the Detroit Free Press conducted an exhaustive investigation of the state’s charter schools and found Michigan charters don’t perform much better than the public schools in their districts. In the meantime, more than $1 billion steered away from public schools and toward charters was spent with very little accountability, transparency, or oversight. The newspaper’s editorial staff recommended the state make serious changes to how charter schools are regulated.

One year later, “there isn’t much to report in the way of progress,” according to the paper’s editorial page editor Stephen Henderson.

According to another Free Press editorial, the state’s grant request to the U.S. Department of Education for $45 million to expand more charter schools was rejected “largely because the state lacks oversight of the authorizers who approve and oversee” charters, because of the “academic performance of charters,” and because of the state’s inadequate plan to “improve achievement among disadvantaged students in charters.”

At the same time, support for public schools has been left on a back burner. Overall spending on education during the Snyder administration has not kept up with inflation, according to this analysis, and the level of Michigan’s spending on public schools is still less today than what it was in 2008.

Detroit has been particularly hard hit.

Under Snyder’s watch – Detroit schools are managed by the state – the city’s schools took deep cuts in 2012. And now the legacy of this underfunding is showing up in the daily conditions of the city’s schools.

In the meantime, Michigan’s charters “have siphoned just enough children and money from public schools to leave districts like Detroit looking like half-deflated balloons,” according to Henderson.

The Choice Offered To Detroit

What does a half-deflated balloon look like close up?

At her blog site at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss allowed a teacher from Detroit to explain:

I have taught in horrible conditions. Classrooms have old, drafty windows that are poorly insulated. In some rooms, we have to wear winter coats in class until lunchtime. In other rooms, it can be ridiculously hot. Both temperature conditions are extremely distracting to the educational process. It’s hard for kids to concentrate when their hands are freezing or they’re sweating profusely. When it rains, water leaks into the classrooms from the roof. We have had to place buckets under the leaks and pray for dry weather. Unfixed structural damage causes water-soaked tiles to frequently fall from the ceiling of classrooms. The carpet has an ever-present moldy smell.

When city inspectors, prompted by the teachers’ complaints, looked at the conditions in 11 Detroit schools, they found “widespread code violations, including multiple instances of rodents, mold, damaged roofs and broken glass,” according local news reports.

Michigan lawmakers responded to Detroit teachers, not by drafting new legislation to rescue the public schools, but by determining how to stop the teachers from calling in sick to their dilapidated schools. The district administration, which operates as an extension of the state, filed an injunction against the teachers, which a judge promptly threw out. Then the state-appointed Emergency Manager who oversees Detroit Public Schools enacted a number of new ordinances to stifle the teachers’ voices, including one that requires teachers to report to the administration the names of any teachers who may be discussing a potential sickout or other protest.

Most recently, local news reported a judge had to stop Detroit’s state-appointed school administration from drastically cutting back on the oversight of school boilers. Citing the recent debacle in Flint, Michigan, where cost-cutting on the municipal water supply led to widespread poisoning of the populace, the judge wrote, “Let us not have the next headline to go national be: ‘Detroit Schoolchildren Injured and Killed in Unattended Boiler Explosion.’ ”

So if you are a parent in Detroit, the school choice you have is not one of your design but one that has been engineered by a system that encourages you to flee the increasingly unhealthy, unsafe, and dysfunctional public schools and get your kid in a charter school.

Is This Really Choice?

Of course, the organizers of National School Choice Week send kind regards to “traditional public schools,” too. But instead of accepting what school choice proponents say, look at what they do. What have governors Snyder and Pence and senators Johnson and Cruz done to ensure high-quality neighborhood schools that are accessible to all students?

For that matter, what are government officials and policy makers across the board doing for public schools? As they happily expand the population of charters and the number of voucher programs that siphon money away from public education, they continue to cut financial support. The latest report shows per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools nationwide has dropped for the third year in a row.

If you don’t see this shift in education policy at work in your town, you will soon.

You don’t have to live in a city like Detroit – or like Flint, Ferguson, New Orleans, or Baltimore – to see the shared calamity befalling communities across the country one by one. Even a Nashville parent writing on his personal blog sees this policy at work in his own children’s schools, too. These places are not “outliers.”

The reality is that what most people really want, the guarantee of a high quality public school accessible to all students, is a rapidly diminishing opportunity in this country. Any staged political event trying to sell you a product called “school choice” is just an empty song and dance.

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