It’s fitting that “National School Choice Week,” the annual promotion of vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other schemes that siphon money from public schools and take opportunities away from students, falls in January. Everything about “school choice” leaves students out in the cold.
School choice is about schools that take public money, hand it over to private schools that have little or no accountability to taxpayers, and then pick and choose their students. Our students deserve more than this coldhearted, profit-driven approach to education. They deserve something that puts their needs front and center, providing the support and tools to help them flourish.
There’s a great model in place across the nation: community schools. We’re part of the Coalition for Community Schools, and I’ll be sharing NEA’s perspective this April as a featured speaker at the coalition’s National Forum.
These schools are first and foremost places of learning, but what sets them apart is their focus on the entire child. They can include partnerships with doctors, social service providers, mentors, and more, offering everything from medical care and counseling for students, to job resources and emergency assistance for parents.
Commonsense tells us that students can’t focus inside the classroom if their basic needs aren’t met outside the classroom. That’s the premise of community schools.
Each of these schools is different because every community is different. At the outset, parents, educators, and community partners come together to figure out what the students’ needs are. They devise a plan based and pull in partners that can help. They change and update the plan as needed, responding to any gaps that exist.
Community schools are dynamic, constantly adapting to what’s happening around them. They’re influenced by what happens around them and because of that, they have an influence that goes well beyond the school doors. I visited one of them last year: Brooklyn Center Arts and IB Community High School. I was over-the-moon excited by what I saw – and so is the entire city. The school district adopted the community schools model in 2009.
Brooklyn Center is a city of about 30,000 just northwest of Minneapolis, on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s part of a metropolitan area of about 3.2 million people. More than 43 percent of Brooklyn Center’s public school students are Black, 22 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 16 percent are White. More than 21 percent are English Language learners, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many are recent immigrants and refugees.
— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) April 17, 2015
Stella Sola, the parent coordinator, is well-versed in all these details because of her close contact with families. She not only makes sure parents are part of the school; she is a key resource person and all-round “fixer” for moms and dads. Operating out of the colorful and comfortable parent center, Stella does it all – from explaining a student’s report card to a dad from another country, to bringing in an attorney who could speak on immigration law.
Stella told me about getting glasses for one child who desperately needed them, keeping healthy snacks on hand for the students who didn’t have enough to eat at home, and helping parents navigate bureaucracies to find housing or jobs. She said, “I’m not a teacher, but if I’m successful with the families, the children will be able to learn.”
This approach works. A study on the Brooklyn Center schools found that student enrollment in higher education went from 61 percent in 2009 to 78 percent just one year later. Other studies on community schools in general show that their students complete homework at higher rates, earn higher grades, and have better attendance records.
Community schools recognize that improving schools has to be a cooperative, not an adversarial, process. And you don’t have to be an educator to understand this. When voters were asked in a poll last year to rank the top problems facing education, the lack of school choice wasn’t one of them. What ranked highest? Lack of parental involvement, one of the central tenets of community schools.
If these schools are so successful, why, oh why aren’t there more of them? Because lots of politicians have fallen under the spell of the school “choice” advocates, with their slick marketing campaigns and corporate backing. Just like any other profiteers who make their riches by finding a vulnerability and then capitalizing on it, these folks are good at selling snake oil. And just like snake oil never worked, research is showing that tuition credits, vouchers, and the like don’t, either.
Consider this: There is no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement. Not only do vouchers not reduce public education costs; they undermine accountability by shifting public funds into the hands of schools that operate with almost full autonomy. And very little is known about how charters spend federal and state tax dollars.
More people are figuring out the truth and moving toward community schools. In fact, a law is now on the books in Minnesota providing grants to plan, implement, and improve full-service community schools.
So this week, let’s tell our relatives, friends, and neighbors: Don’t believe the hype. If they really want to make a great choice for students, let’s invest in public education and create more schools that support all our students.