Years ago, I was talking with a lovely director of a lovely and elite private school about private school vouchers. She was touting what her school had to offer in terms of class sizes of 12, and science laboratories and technology rooms, and truly, it was lovely.
Actual Conversation 15 years ago:
She: Why would you be against allowing poor children the ability to receive a scholarship voucher to attend this lovely school? Don’t poor children deserve the same right as rich children to come to a school like this?
Me: So, I want to understand what you just said. Rich children have a right to come to your school?
She, confused: Excuse me?
Me: Rich children have a right to walk into your office, plunk down their money and demand to be enrolled in your school?
She: Well, of course, there’s a process. There’s an application. There’s a test. There’s a committee. Our standards are very high. It protects the students to make sure they’re a good fit for our program.
Me: So, they have a right to apply. They have a right to show they have high test scores. And they have a right to hope that the committee chooses them.
She: Well, it’s much more than just test scores. We know that even a bright child must have a committed, involved family if he’s going to succeed. Our families have to demonstrate they can provide the necessary home support for the student or we don’t even consider them.
Me: I hate to be thick about it, but I’m also thinking they have to demonstrate they can pay tuition of about $20,000.
She: Well, yes, and that’s where the vouchers would come in. With vouchers, we could reduce the tuition by the amount of the voucher or even use the voucher to subsidize a scholarship. It would give poor children the same rights as our other children!
So, fifteen years have gone by and vouchers are still one of the more shameful and shakiest pillars of school reform nincompoopery.
The privately-funded ultraconservative group ALEC wants to shortchange your children and dismantle public education by robbing them of badly needed funding and giving it to private schools. Its ultimate goal is to privatize public education, which its corporate donors see as a multi-billion dollar industry just ripe for the taking.
But today, the elite private schools are rarely trotted out. Today, there’s the smell of money to be made. There are franchise, for-profit schools (and non-profit schools with very wealthy executive staff) designed – not to appeal to an elite private school market, but to families of modest means who desperately want something that works for their children.
These are good parents who send their kids to public schools that have been underfunded, overrun with testing abuse, gutted by cuts in programs like the arts, sports, science, technology and anything that takes critical, creative thinking skills. Classes are overcrowded and counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, tutors and support professionals have been so cut back that in some schools they are only a fading memory.
Parents want something better, and their children deserve something better. But instead of looking for ways to make things better for all students like reducing class sizes and increasing choices in programs and services, and untying the hands of educators to create interesting lessons and programs without the interference of mindless test prep, voucher salesmen move into poor neighborhoods with colorful brochures and colorful promises about poor children getting what rich children have.
Voucher schools are rarely selective, elite schools. They are often businesses.
Mismanaged businesses that can go bankrupt.
Corrupt businesses that can cheat children.
Businesses that make big promises and deliver big disappointments.
Vouchers are not about family choices, as the lovely director of the private school accidentally explained. But the right to real choices is a good thing. Our public schools are still reeling from the dark years of funding cuts and Stupid Test mandates, and yet our educators are still standing strong for what’s right for kids and families. We believe in real rights to real choices. And that means the right for any child to walk through the doors of a public school and the right to demand what any child needs to be successful.
Students have choices in Milwaukee where teachers and parents developed an idea for a very special school to nurture the bilingual skills of students. With the full support of their union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association the Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes (Academy of Language and Fine Arts) started a school that gives English Language Learners choices in Head Start programs. The school gives them choices in theater, music, dance and even for training with the Milwaukee Art Museum. They have choices in culturally relevant programs for parents, where they can meet with teachers and together make decisions on field-trips and calendars and discipline programs. These are real choices.
Students have choices in New Jersey where Bob Goodman taught basic Math in an alternative school, serving some of the most disadvantaged young people in the state. His students were bored with basic math. He decided to teach them physics. He also decided to completely revamp the sequencing, pedagogy, and content in the course combining a collaborative, small group model with interactive technology. Bob trained his colleagues in his methods and, with the help of the New Jersey Education Association, The New Jersey Center for Teaching & Learning can now count thousands of students who have more choices in Advanced Placement Math, Physics and Sciences – choices that lead to higher education and STEM careers.
Little students have choices in Somerville, Massachusetts where the Michael E. Capuano Early Childhood Center offers parents of preschool children literacy playgroups in English, Portuguese and Spanish and New Moms Groups and art classes and puppet shows and English classes for parents, and an physical, healthy environment that surrounds boys and girls with warmth and color and the designed collaboration.
These are public schools. They are public schools that serve students in poor neighborhoods. Students actually do have a real right to demand entrance to their public school. What we want is the real right to demand meaningful choices within those schools. To demand the choice to personalize education with a decent class size and programs in the arts and sports and technology and foreign languages and field trips and career education and STEM options that lead to college and universities.
So, yes,we believe all poor kids deserve the right to the same choices as rich kids. That won’t happen with vouchers that choose only the child that’s good enough for the school. It happens when you create a school that’s good enough for every blessed child.