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In honor of National School Choice Week, I felt compelled to jot down just a few words about how I came to support school choice as a means for transforming the American education system.
Unlike a lot of folks in the education policy debate, before I moved behind the desk of a DC think tank and started pontificating about education policy, I was a teacher. Specifically, I taught 9th and 10th grade English and religion, coached baseball, tutored students for the ACT, and led retreats at St. Jude Educational Institute on the west side of Montgomery, Alabama. One of the last remaining historically African-American Catholic schools in the South, St. Jude was (and is) committed to offering its students an alternative to Montgomery’s notoriously languishing public schools.
For the vast majority of my students, St. Jude was the first private school they had attended. They routinely came to my classroom years behind where they needed to be, often reading at less than a 4th grade level. It was in my classroom in Montgomery that the abject failure of our education system to teach our children of color came into stark relief.
The statistics back me up. According to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, Alabama public schools only graduate 65.4 percent of their African-American Students. Sadly, that still beats 17 states and the District of Columbia. And if you think these problems are clustered in the South, I’d point you to Connecticut’s 63.5 percent black graduation rate, Nebraska’s 57.6 percent, and Nevada’s whopping 46.7 percent. We have got to do better.
My time teaching in the inner city, and specifically at an inner-city Catholic school, taught me three lessons which drove me to support school choice as the mechanism for turning around these terrible statistics.
1. Most public schools aren’t as “public” as you might think
Rhetoric around public schools holds that they are open-access, egalitarian institutions that take children from all races, creeds, and backgrounds and bring them together in classrooms to instill in them a shared set of democratic values.
That doesn’t happen.
Because the lion’s share of our public schools are residentially assigned, and because our neighborhoods are, by and large, segregated, we see racial and socio-economic stratification in our schools. Houses in neighborhoods zoned for better public schools cost more, and therefore people have to pay “tuition” (in the form of a higher mortgage) to get their children into them.
Look at the breakdown by race of the seven public high schools in Montgomery. The only schools that are less than 80 percent African-American are the three academically-selective magnet schools. This tells us that in Montgomery if you want to attend something other than a hyper-segregated school with a less than 52 percent graduation rate you must qualify for a magnet, move to the suburbs, or pay to attend a private school. That is neither right nor fair. School choice, done right, can offer stronger academic alternatives without sacrificing the public mission of schooling.
2. The Blurry Line Between Public and Private Schools
Rather than judging schools by who manages them, we should judge them based on how well they serve the cause of public education. Public education is an idea: it is the belief that we have an obligation to educate the children of our community in the knowledge and skills that they need to be happy and successful adults in our society. Too often we conflate the mechanism (public schools) with the idea, but we don’t have to continue making that mistake. By expanding the set of schools available to parents and disentangling their residency from the school their child attends, we can free them to find the school that best meets the needs of their child.
3. Empowering parents puts the right people in charge
Choice is no panacea to the ills of public education. Granting every child in America a voucher or a tuition tax credit scholarship tomorrow would not immediately solve all of the problems of the American public education system. What choice does is establish the conditions under which change can happen. It frees families from an intransigent bureaucracy that has failed to meet their needs for decades. It empowers entrepreneurial school leaders to offer more diverse options than are currently available to students. It puts the power in the hands of students and their families, not in politicians or bureaucrats.
One of St. Jude’s claims to fame was its role in the historic Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. King and the marchers camped on St. Jude’s grounds the night before they walked to the Capitol, and Dr. King gave his “How long? Not long” speech. His words ring as true today as they did on that March day in 1965: “The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” The path to a better American education system is long, and the decisions to get us there are difficult, but we must keep going.
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