Snake Oil (and vouchers) Don’t Work. Community Schools Do!

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.

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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.

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 them flourish

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.

6 Responses to “Snake Oil (and vouchers) Don’t Work. Community Schools Do!”

  1. Ray James

    Great article, Lily! You certainly are speaking the truth!!

    • martin theiss

      I agree with you Ray, however I would like to know how the NEA oversees community schools from the aspect that community schools balance support and teacher skills with students who have needs. I think a major point of this that gets lost in the shuffle is a clear explanation of how the NEA affiliates regionalize operations so that teachers learning skills or are inexperienced do not fall into designed traps intended to foster a culture where experienced teachers have the grit of low performing schools behind them and use their experience to widen the gap with students who traditionally perform well.

  2. Jennifer organ

    And what about parents who want a Christian education instead of a moral relative secular humanistic education and whom can not afford it? You guys are against EVERYTHING when it comes to a parents choice including opting out of disgusting no morals so called comprehensive sex “education”…The NEA even believes that should not even be an option for public school parents….It’s your way or the highway including curriculum and even curriculum a parent may object to. It is the PARENTS job to direct the education of their children including the content of that education and what and who a child may be exposed to..Especially without their knowledge or without their participation..In states where there are no parental consent laws, public school employees have even taken children out of school for ABORTION!! (And the NEA is actually AGAINST parental consent and even notification laws!!..Public schools have proven time and time again to be hostile to the Christian faith,especially fundamentalism, and have proven time and time again that conservative Christian parents can not trust it or rely on it……You keep saying that poor children have a right to a good education. And money should not be siphoned away from it…But Conservative Christian parents have a right for their children to also be in good and even better quality (most Christian and Catholic schools have curriculum ahead of and more advanced then public schools..I am not talking of charter schools, but of well established GREAT Christian and Catholic schools…I know they are like that in NY .) schools and have just as much right as rich parents to have that choice..Tax dollars should not only go to public schools especially if they teach against parents values and beliefs and are hostile to that child’s parents faith and what those parents are trying to teach and instill to their children…You guys don’t even want parents to have the right to opt our of morally bankrupt sex “education” and you are for a school to take a child without a parents knowledge or permission to have a major medical procedure… Public schools ave proven that Conservative Christian parents can not trust them or rely on them and need other options with THEIR tax dollars. I hope you will post this to show the other side and to also answer my questions and discuss the issues I brought up in my comment..

  3. Heath Judd

    I am curious what Jennifer organ would think about tax dollars going to private schools that follow non-Christian faiths. (Note: I consider Catholicism to be Christian.) In a country with religious pluralism, how can we think to spend tax payer money on schools teaching doctrine that is in direct conflict with our civil laws?

  4. LYN FH

    As a parent of a child that attended a community school model middle school I can tell you it transformed school culture to one of compassion, cooperation and consideration of others. Especially for children who struggle. It brings the community together to problem solve to help bring in supports. If the community decides they want a faith partner to help with tutoring, activities or after school programming, they are free to do that. What makes it remarkably successful (and admittedly this is something our schools struggled to do beyond the same 4 parents and teachers that always engage) is to deeply involve teachers and parents with the needs assessments. It is a pretty simple concept. Take those discovered needs and align them with available resources. But, it is one that remains difficult sometimes to foster shared leadership to cooperatively decide on solutions. It takes time and trust. Faith maybe… that a community can come together to serve and lift up children’s needs.

  5. martin theiss

    I understand the problems created by schools and teacher associations going against the judgement of parents who wish their children learn certain doctrinal ways from schools. A valid argument. However, in light of the fact that Secretary De Vos has not clarified how she intends to reduce overall operations in the context that services to many traditionally funded programs are reduced in favor of cutting the link between community accountable programs and Federal funding, I would like to know how she intends to “follow the dollar” to ensure that the same gusto is enforced on funding as other issues such as Obamacare being changed to soften its effect on non-traditionally ensured groups.


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