School choice too often leads to segregation
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.