An op-ed in today's Courier-Journal recycles the kinds of inaccurate information all-too typical of those who oppose the idea of parental choice in education. Let's set a few things straight.
The piece, written by Gay Adelmann, co-founder of a group called Dear JCPS, is mostly a protest against the newspaper's recent endorsement of certain candidates for the Jefferson County Public Schools board of education. Ms. Adelmann supports other candidates, and she evidently thinks the board race reflects a secret agenda to promote charter schools.
I have little interest in the JCPS board election and I don't support (or oppose) any of the candidates. I have no idea if the "outside interests" she is concerned about really support school choice. What troubles me are some of the inaccuracies that appear in Ms. Aldelmann's article, especially as they relate to those who do support school choice.
What is public education? First, Ms. Adelmann is concerned about a movement to "privatize public education." But that's not what school choice policies like charter schools are designed to do. As I've written before, education is a public good and should be generously funded. But the public nature of education does not mean that schooling services must only be delivered by government-run schools. Health care is a public good too, but I suspect Ms. Adelmann does not protest when a doctor or private hospital (or non-profit hospital) accepts Medicaid or Medicare reimbursements for treating the poor and elderly. Nor do we object to college students using their Pell grant or GI Bill at a private college. Nor do we insist that food stamp recipients purchase groceries from a government-run store.
It's only in the realm of K-12 education that we deny low-income families the dignity of choosing the public service that best matches the needs of their family, and that's why it's time to rethink what it means for a school to be "public." Charter schools are non-sectarian public schools that do not charge tuition, must accept all comers (who are interested in the specific educational program the school provides; no one is ever forced to attend a charter), and have autonomy to innovate and design an education program best suited for the students it serves. Nationally, only 13 percent of charters are operated by for-profit entities (and I would consider those no different than the private hospital example noted above).
Silver bullet? Ms. Adelmann repeats the oft-leveled suggestion that charter school supporters believe school choice is a panacea to solve all our education problems. But that is nonsense. Show me where any choice proponent has ever suggested such a thing? The truth is that some charter schools are hugely successful, and some are utter failures - just like district schools. The difference is that no one is forced to attend a charter school, and a poor-performing charter can be shut down, while a poor-performing district school can drain taxpayer dollars in perpetuity while keeping low-income families locked out of other options.
I write extensively about the wide range of challenges facing education, and how more must be done to improve the quality of school leadership, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and a myriad of other aspects of schooling. Even in a vibrant school choice environment, there will remain much work to be done to improve education, regardless of whether it is a district school, charter school, or independent school of choice.
Opening the flood gates? Ms. Adelmann makes a strange and completely inaccurate statement when she says, "Kentucky is by far the largest state yet to open the flood gates to access of our tax dollars earmarked for education by way of charter legislation." First, let's be clear: Kentucky does not have charter schools, or any other school choice policy for that matter. And if the state legislature enacted a charter law, we would be far from the largest state to do so. In fact, 43 other states and the District of Columbia already have charter schools.
Stake takeover? Somewhat unrelated to the issue of school choice, Ms. Adelmann asks if the C-J editorial board understands how it feels "to live under the constant threat of a state takeover" of a low-performing school. But I'm not aware of any provision for the state to "take over" a struggling school. Whole districts can go under state management when they are fiscally bankrupt, but that is an entirely different matter. Persistently low-performing schools must adopt a transformation model, and the education recovery teams that are sent to assist low-performing schools do wield a lot of influence, but hardly have "take over" control. In fact, there are vivid examples of schools that have aggressively resisted their help. So where is this draconian accountability she fears? That students stuck in these low-performing schools might have the option of going elsewhere?
What does competition do? Ms. Adelmann also decries the "harm" that is done when educators must "endure a competitive environment." Well I would ask, what competitive environment currently exists? Charter schools would indeed introduce an element of competition, but in a 2013 analysis of 23 empirical research studies, 22 found that district schools improved their performance when school choice was introduced in their communities. Who, exactly, is being harmed by school choice?
Whose "non-inclusive" agenda? Ms. Adelmann further suggests nefarious motives for the supporters of school choice, hinting that we must have a "non-inclusive agenda." I think that's code for "they want to keep out the difficult-to-educate kids." But that's not what school choice does. The demographics of charter school enrollments vary considerably from state to state, but in many communities charter schools enroll higher percentages of disadvantaged students and students of color and about equal numbers of special needs students than their district counterparts. And while there's little to distinguish overall charter school performance from overall district school performance, there is one notable exception: when disadvantaged students stay in a charter school for more than a year they tend to outperform their demographically similar counterparts in district schools.
The truth is, affluent families don't need school choice policies. Their relative wealth allows them to buy homes in the school zones of their choosing or send their kinds to independent or faith-based schools. The wealthy already have school choice! Policies like charter schools level the playing field by opening up additional alternatives for low-income families.
Who is evil? Finally, Ms. Adelmann suggests that some of those who disagree with her might be well-intentioned, but "most are uninformed, self-serving, or downright evil."
It's always easier to demonize those who see things differently than to deal with facts or engage in civil dialogue. I am myself very tempted to question the motives of those who oppose parental choice in education. It is easy to wonder if they are just shills for powerful teachers unions and other professional interests concerned merely with preserving the status quo. Or worse, that those (mostly white and affluent) who have already been able to exercise some measure of school choice want to make sure the poor, darker-skinned children have to stay put in other schools.
But I don't believe that's true. I think people like Ms. Adelmann are sincere in wanting to offer great schools to every child. But the facts make it clear that by resisting school choice, they are doing just the opposite.
UPDATE, 11/30/2016: Yesterday, at her invitation, I had the chance to sit down for a face-to-face chat with Ms. Adelmann. As I expected, I found her to be sincere and passionate in her concern for students. Her track record of activism on behalf of education is so impressive, I truly wish every school had parents as dedicated and hard-working. We continue to disagree about a number of strategies for addressing school improvement and education equity, but I was encouraged by the conversation. We truly all want the same things, even if we have different ideas of how to get there.
- What makes a school "public?"
- Does school choice "drain money" from public schools?
- Charter school opponents spread misinformation
Image: First Lady Michelle Obama visits Latin American Bilingual Montessori Public Charter School, 2009 (Public Domain).
Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (where I work) of the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).