263: WHAT CHOICE DO WE HAVE? THE QUESTION IS WHAT CHANCE?

If you are paying close attention, the title to this blog is quote from Jyn Erso - leder of Rogue One. Actually, it is her qoute reversed. It should come as no shock that I am somewhat of a Star Wars nerd, and I of course I loved Rogue One, but I was thinking of the quote because I had been thinking about choice.

School choice is a pretty big deal, and you can spend a ton of time on the internet reading about the pros and cons of school choice. Something about it though keeps tickling at the back of my brain - it always has. If you go back to Blog 218, you might remember that someone accused me of being against school choice because of Teacher's Unions. I pointed out, at the time of the conversation that I didn't know if I was against school choice or not, but was definitely against Besty Devos becoming our Secretary of Education. "Teachers don't want school choice because they don't want to have to work hard," was the arguement presented to me at the time. I was pretty focused on the incompetence of our newly appointed Secretary of Education at the time, not on the issue of school choice, but for some reason I've been thinking about school choice. I'll summarize the two sides as I understand them:

  • Pro
    1. Parents decide what schools their children attend.
    2. Students don't have to wait for schools to improve. They can get the best education right now.
    3. School choice forces schools to compete for the dollars that follow the student.
    4. Low-performing schools will disappear because they couldn't keep pace more competitive and effective schools. No more tax dollars wasted on disfunctional institutions.
  • Con
    1. School vouchers become a meaningless paper that gains students entrance into a school but doesn't cover "fees" which can be increased thus closing out poor families.
    2. School choice doesn't take into account the issues of transportation and afterschool care for working families.
    3. The complexities and choices involved can be overwhelming for non-English speaking families.
    4. Families in poverty are often left behind in failing schools.

This is an imperfect summary, at best, but like I said earlier, if you want to dig a little deeper --- you can spend hours on the internet reading about it. I have heard both sides argued, and can appreciate the perspective of both. I've taught in both private and public schools.

In a perfect word, tax dollars following a student to whatever institution serves them best seems to be a great idea that would not only provide each family with a great educational experience, but also push schools to make sure that they can compete for those dollars. If school in neighborhood A is cutting it, then kids from that neighborhood disperse to schools B, C, and D, and school A has to step up it's game or disappear.

Of course, school choice involves active choice. Parents have to be proactive and fill out the appropriate paperwork; be aware of their choices and their rights. They also have to be able to get child from neighborhood A, to school C - possibly across town. This is a tremendous burden on families living in poverty who rely on public transportation or even being able to walk to school. How can they get their child across town AND be at work on time?

There is so much to think about when addressing the idea of school choice. How can we make sure that second language learners, special education students, and special needs students have the same opportunities as other students? What about the simple fact that private schools do not provide support services for these students? How can a system that excludes support for certain types of students be an appropriate choice?

But the thing that has really been tickling at the back of my brain for years now, is the question of equity. How can school choice be a choice at all? School choice is based on the preposition that parents need to make choices because some schools are bad. This is what I've been thinking about. I've been thinking about it a lot. How can we live in a country that simple accepts as fact Not every child in our Nation gets a good education. We accept this as a simple fact. "Did you get him in to a good school?" This is a common question asked by grandparents about their precious grandbabies. It is an accepted and ordinary question, and yet, like the idea of school vouchers themselves, has a horrible underlying premise: We don't educate everyone equally and we are okay with that.

I think often about my good fortune. I was born in a country that permits women to get an education. I was born into a family that was able to put me into the private school system. I had no learning disabilities, and the standard methods of teaching were effective. I lived in a house filled with books. My parents were already both native speakers of English and they, and my grandparents were intellectuals who read, and encouraged me to read. My parents were educated enough to assist me with my homework, and when I needed more help, could afford tutoring.

There are girls who were born the same year I was, who had a vastly different experience. They were born into countries that prohibited girls from attending school. Their parents were illiterate and/or couldn't help them with their homework. Their parents did not speak the same language as the language of the schools they attended. Their parents worked multiple jobs and were not home to help them with their homework. They had to leave school to help support their families.

It easy to think about inequality in education when talking about nations like Pakistan or Yemen - places far from home. We are comfortable talking about countries stricken with war or poverty and shake our heads at the sad opportunities afforded their children. Yet the truth is there are children in the United States of America who do not get a quality education. In your country, in your state and possibly even in your city. There are children, maybe just across town from you, born into their families - beautiful, wide-eyed and hopeful. They dream big dreams -- fireman, doctor, archeologist, paleontologist, biologist, teacher, nurse, and president. They arrive with new backpacks or maybe paper bags, ready for their first day. Maybe they have brand new supplies, or maybe nothing at all, but they arrive waiting to read their first word. They are no different from my own children and yet, because of the luck of the draw their classrooms are overcrowded, their teachers untrained, their programs ineffective. And this we accept. It is how the world works. If you are wealthy, you can buy a better education - simply by living in a better neighborhood. The key to a good school is STILL the dollar bill.

And maybe you think, well, it IS how things work, and I gotta take care of my kid. But I offer the same argument I offered in Blog 218: They are ALL our kids. If we don't pay for EVERY kid to get a quality education, then we will pay to support the ones we leave behind. We pay for jails, for rehibilitaion programs, remedial programs for students entering college, and for the unemployed and homeless. The idea that school choice is a need at all disturbs me. We aren't talking about choice for the sake of superficiality -- my kid wants to go to the school that has blue as their school colors, not green. School choice presuposes that not every school is good, and BECAUSE some schools are bad, we need to let parents choose.

This is a concept that totally bums me out. It should, shouldn't it? I am an educator and it seems to me that there is nothing worse than living in a world where it is okay for our nation to fail some of its students. But maybe that's just me.

Keep moving forward,

Jen