School choice too of­ten leads to seg­re­ga­tion

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Mor­gan Showal­ter Mor­gan Showal­ter (mor­gan­showal­ter@ya­ is a high school spe­cial ed­u­ca­tor in the Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools. He is the ap­pointee of the Bal­ti­more Teach­ers Union on the Mary­land Com­mis­sion for Ex­cel­lence and In­no­va­tion in Ed­u­cat

One of Don­ald Trump’s sons, in a speech at the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, stated that through his fa­ther’s plan for school choice, ev­ery stu­dent would have the same ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties that he and his sib­lings re­ceived.

Does he mean­that ev­ery­one should be able to at­tend the Hill School or Choate? At first this sounds like an amaz­ing idea. The sto­ries of those who have been af­forded such op­por­tu­ni­ties are all around us, and they are al­most al­ways com­pelling.

Take for in­stance the story of New York Times An­des bureau chief Ni­cholas Casey as re­counted on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Mr. Casey de­scribed how a schol­ar­ship to an elite pri­vate school lifted him out of poverty, grow­ing up in a trailer park in Red­wood City, Calif, and helped to shape him into the suc­cess­ful per­son he is to­day.

I learned about Mary­land Del. Frank S. Turner’s story while wait­ing to tes­tify on be­half of the Bal­ti­more Teacher’s Union against a bill that would al­low pub­lic funds to be used for pri­vate school vouch­ers. While speak­ing against the vouch­ers, Del­e­gate Turner told us about the pri­vate Catholic school his mother strug­gled to send him to and how it changed his life by al­low­ing him to es­cape the poverty of his neigh­bor­hood and the chal­lenges of the pub­lic school lo­cated there.

I, too, know the pos­si­bil­i­ties that a priv­i­leged ed­u­ca­tion can bring. When I re­ceived a schol­ar­ship to at­tend high school at the In­ter­lochen Arts Academy, my life also shifted acutely. By at­tend­ing that renowned board­ing school, I left be­hind sit­u­a­tional poverty, sick­ness, food stamps and wel­fare, as my fam­ily con­tin­ued liv­ing in a two-room shack in the North­ern Michi­gan woods, with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter.

In these sto­ries we find the theme of es­cape. Yet the com­mon an­tag­o­nist in each is not a failed school sys­tem as many, in­clud­ing Don­ald Trump, who has pro­posed of­fer­ing “school choice” to ev­ery Amer­i­can stu­dent liv­ing in poverty, would have us be­lieve. In­stead it is poverty and the detri­men­tal ef­fects this eco­nomic con­di­tion has on in­di­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies and the in­sti­tu­tions around them.

The Trump fam­ily speaks of choice as the ed­u­ca­tional re­form du jour. And who would want to ar­gue against a plan that pur­ports to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery child to ob­tain the best ed­u­ca­tion pos­si­ble? Yet ed­u­ca­tional choice is a loaded term with a check­ered his­tory. School choice once promised an egal­i­tar­ian mix of ur­ban and sub­ur­ban stu­dents of all races in one build­ing, but in re­al­ity it usu­ally meant seg­re­ga­tion, with black stu­dents con­fined to cer­tain city schools and whites al­lowed a means of es­cape from them. To­day school choice of­ten means us­ing pub­lic funds to sup­port pri­va­tized char­ter schools of vary­ing qual­ity that usu­ally are not union­ized. To­day choice means us­ing pub­lic funds to pro­vide vouch­ers to pri­vate schools that are al­lowed by law to dis­crim­i­nate.

Ed­u­ca­tional choices will al­ways be avail­able, but they may never be ef­fec­tively avail­able to all. What would a com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem of choices look like? An ex­o­dus of the able that ig­nores the root causes of the prob­lems? And what about those who are left be­hind? Suc­cess­ful ed­u­ca­tional re­form may have as much to do with where a stu­dent falls on Maslow’s Hi­er­ar­chy of Needs as it does on ped­a­gogy, or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture or a scheme to pri­va­tize pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion while pre­tend­ing to in­crease eq­uity.

It wasn’t that the small town school I was leav­ing was hor­ri­ble. Many of my child­hood class­mates went on to aca­demic and fi­nan­cial suc­cess. Yes, at In­ter­lochen the cur­ricu­lum was in­no­va­tive and rig­or­ous, my peers ex­cep­tional, the fac­ulty wise. But I also re­mem­ber stand­ing in the shower of my dorm room on frigid win­ter morn­ings be­fore the long walk to break­fast at Stone Stu­dent Cen­ter, just let­ting the hot wa­ter run over me. For that sim­ple gift I was thank­ful. My ba­sic needs were met and I safe. Only then was I able I was to truly thrive as a stu­dent.

In­stead of pub­licly funded in­equitable plans of es­cape for a few, let us fo­cus on re­searched-based so­lu­tions that have the abil­ity to ben­e­fit the great­est num­bers while trans­form­ing our com­mu­ni­ties. These in­clude meet­ing the needs of the whole child, com­mu­nity schools and re­sources to com­bat trauma. Let us stop ig­nor­ing the links be­tween so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus and aca­demic suc­cess and in­stead work to cre­ate real, sus­tain­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­one to suc­ceed.

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