The Blasphemy of School Vouchers

3

12548919_10208635281788412_3707430446583317694_nIt’s been a crazy time lately here in Tennessee. The Tennessee State Legislature is back in session, and that means it’s time for the annual school voucher battle. Forces from outside Tennessee have been attempting to push this legislation through for the last four years. Luckily, the citizens of Tennessee don’t take too kindly to outsiders telling us what kind of policies we should enact, and parent groups have risen up and pointed out the follies of the plan for school vouchers. But this year, things have gotten serious.

Last week, I sat in a sub-committee meeting and listened to the sponsor of House Bill 1049 , Representative Dunn talk about what dire straits our schools are in. You’ve heard the rhetoric before about kids trapped in failed schools. Supporters spout this rhetoric while ignoring the cost to our existing public schools and the lack of evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes. Bill sponsor Representative Bill Dunn dismissed the potential damage that the siphoning off of public funds to schools through the utilization of vouchers could cause by saying, “In the end, the adults in (the schools), they’ll be OK, but the kids in them can’t wait.” Luckily, Rep. Karen Camper from District 87 provided me the opportunity to counter some of his  heresy. (I only use that term because a potential amendment to the bill actually included the word blasphemy, so I thought I should stick with the theme.) It’s interesting to note that of those who spoke to committee for the bill, the majority of proponent were clergy and politicians while opposition was made up of parents, teachers, and other community members.

My opposition to voucher programs stem from my experiences as a parent at one of those so-called failing schools. First and foremost, I take great exception to someone labeling schools without ever setting foot in them. Our experience has been quite different than that described by legislators. Secondly, these so-called failing schools do face many challenges, none of which will be solved by vouchers. In fact, vouchers will actually hurt my child’s school. It’ll further siphon off families that would be able to help improve the school with their involvement and divert badly needed resources. Despite what House Majority Leader McCormick may claim, “The constant refrain has been we just need more money, what we’ve done the last five years is we’ve spent more money.”, Tennessee is not funding its schools appropriately.  If they were, why would two major school districts feel compelled to file suit.  What Tennessee children need is more resources, not lifeboats sailing off with a few select children as well as badly needed resources.

Want to see the disparities and differences between schools for yourself? First, go to any “failing school” and compare the facilities to any “great school,” and I guarantee you’ll see the disparity right away. Rep. Charles Sargent pointed out to me that the state doesn’t really fund capital projects; that’s left to school districts. Okay, fine, but then I ask why? If you think that the situation with children is so dire that you need to provide an escape hatch for some, why not be willing to explore ways to provide equitable facilities for all children? Why not truly bust down the old model and explore every avenue to provide the resources children need. Its a proven fact that quality facilities improve learning outcomes and kids can’t wait, right?

Next, I’d like you to examine the access to technology in both types of schools. Here’s another area where I guarantee you things will not be equitable. The “great schools” will have greater access because they have PTOs and involved parents who raise money to make sure that all their kids have access to the necessary technology. Those parents should be commended but it shouldn’t be their responsibility and the parents in the “failing schools” don’t have access to those revenue streams. Why does the state not make it an imperative to utilize all the means at their disposal to ensure that all children have equitable access? You can’t hold people accountable if you are not supplying the tools, can you?

Speaking of parents, let’s compare parental involvement in the “failing” vs. “great” schools. I promise that again, involvement will be much greater in the latter. Tusculum Elementary School has a large population of refugees. They cannot be as involved as other parents, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t yet have the capacity. These are people who are just trying to learn how to navigate the system, and now you want them to learn to navigate a voucher program? Legislators should be exploring ways to make a parents job easier not more difficult. Instead of putting this demand on parents, Tennessee state legislators could support community schools to facilitate parental involvement – that is, if this was truly all about “the kids.

Critics love to point out how school A is overcoming its challenges while school B is failing with the same demographics but seldom do they delve below the surface on these demographics. A favorite trick of politicians and reformers is that they will point to two schools and say both have high EL populations, but school A is doing really well while school B is failing. What they neglect to tell you is that the average education level of parents from school A is 9th grade and the average in school B is 2nd grade. The education level of parents makes a huge difference. Again, support of the community schools model would help combat this challenge. Instead of manipulating data to sell a free market narrative we should focus on utilizing that data to enact policy that is good for all kids.

Many of our most challenged schools have high populations of children who are learning English. Unfortunately, a lack of English proficiency leads to low test scores and high dropout rates. If we were truly serious about helping ALL kids, Tennessee legislators would start working towards legislation that would allow for dual language instruction and encourage districts to adopt robust ELL master plans. Nashville currently has one Spanish immersion school, Glendale Elementary School, and it’s a reward school. If this is truly about all kids, wouldn’t it make sense to try and replicate what a rewards school is already doing well?

Instead of adopting any of these ideas that are already proven to help children, we are choosing to adopt, at great expense, a plan that has been shown to hurt children. What a voucher program essentially does is ration high quality public education. Some children, namely those whose parents can navigate the system, will get a life boat to a potentially better situation. But what about those left behind? A vouchers plan does not offer a solution for those children. In fact, as blogger Steven Singer points out, it makes things worse.

Here’s another guarantee for you. Once this legislation passes, the majority of focus will shift to those children who received vouchers. Supporters will then cherry pick data that shows high performance for those children, and vice versa – the ones left behind will receive less attention and therefore less resources than they previously did. Who will want to focus on increasing the BEP when presented with manipulated data that shows those schools are failing and voucher students are soaring? The push to increase the number of scholarships will only increase. Which will lead to this all-important question: Where are the private schools that will take these children? Knoxville currently only has four schools that would qualify.

(ED Note: It has since been brought to my attention that the schools referenced in the linked article are actually schools in the bottom 5% and not private schools that would accept vouchers. Sources tell me there are no private schools that would accept vouchers in Knoxville which is even more troubling. Someone needs to get Andre Agassi on the phone quickly. Sorry for confusion.)

Google “private schools in Nashville” and you’ll get back 300 and some options. Now, cross out the ones that are religious-based schools. Then you can probably cross off the ones like Ensworth and Montgomery Bell Academy, unless the vouchers are going to be for $20k. What are you left with? That’s right – not a lot of options. But luckily there are people out there ready to build new schools as long as there are tax incentives and the profit margin is right. But this is for the kids though, right?

We need policy that benefits all children, like fully funding the BEP, for starters, not policy that attempts to pick winners and losers and just offers lifeboats to a few. Legislators need to take a hard look at where support for voucher programs are coming from. This is a policy that special interests are calling for and not parents. It’s a policy that will hurt many with potential to aid few. Chairman of the House Finance Committee Rep. Charles Sargent believes this is acceptable: “I’m not saying this program is going to work, but if I save 20 percent of [children not graduating in some schools] I feel we’ve helped someone.” American’s don’t elect official to work for the 20%. They don’t elect them to push legislation that wouldn’t even affect their district at the behest of special interests. They elect them to fight for legislation that benefits us all.

Tennessee’s voucher bill passed out of the finance committee this week and heads to the full House next week. I’d urge all legislators to heed Representative Craig Fitzhugh’s words: “How can we take money from failing schools and give it to private schools? We’d do better to take money from schools in the richest neighborhoods, not the poorest.” I couldn’t agree more and if you agree, I urge you to contact your representative and let them know. Sign the petition

.

Advertisements

Is Detroit really an Outlier?

3

Last week, I, like the rest of the country, read the horrific accounts of the poisoning of the Flint water supply. It really didn’t shock me to find out that the architect of this tragedy was later appointed to oversee the Detroit Public School System. It seems he’s applying the skills he acquired in Flint to the Detroit School System, and now, teachers in Detroit are in the midst of “sick out” being staged to call attention to the deplorable state of Detroit school buildings. This sick out, created solely by frustrated Detroit teachers, has led to a horrified Mayor touring the schools in response. What he saw wasn’t pretty.

 

I watched this video created by a Detroit teacher, and I’d like to say I was shocked, but unfortunately it looked all too familiar. We have a tendency to click our tongues and say things like, “Well, Detroit schools have always been a mess. Glad we don’t live there.” But tell me, what’s so different between what’s in the video and what’s taking place at Tusculum Elementary School in Nashville? A school where last year one teacher was advised “to keep the heat on in her classroom overnight through the winter months. That way it will be warm when students get there the next morning, and it’ll stay heated throughout the day — though she admits that’s an art she hasn’t mastered yet. She’ll have to hope all her kids have jackets, hats, and gloves and don’t lose them during the day, as happens all the time in schools across the city. At her school, many parents can’t afford to replace them.”  It seems what’s going on in Detroit might not be such an anomaly after all.

There are plenty of other similarities between Detroit and Nashville as well. Detroit teachers have long complained of mold in schools and so have Nashville teachers. The district here in Nashville claims to be responsive, but in the same response they claim “they have seen no visual evidence of mold.” The schools referenced are places where mold has been an issue for at least the last five years and shows signs of getting worse. Meanwhile, teachers and students continue to suffer health consequences. Nashville has built two new schools in the last five years, but in what neighborhoods were those schools built and for what demographics? Interestingly enough, plans for Waverly-Belmont were announced at the same meeting as Tusculum Elementary in 2013. Waverly-Belmont is now in the midst of their first year and Tusculum waits.

Tusculum Elementary School had been promised a new school this year. Initial plans had called for them to be housed in a temporary location, a former Lowe’s building, starting in August 2015 and then once construction was completed, moved back to their newly renovated school in August 2016. Delays in securing the Lowe’s property pushed that timeline back to January of 2016. Outcry from a neighboring school over the potential of rezoning scuttled those plans, and ultimately, the district gave up on securing the Lowe’s building. A new plan was formed, and the district was going to build on the existing location with the goal of a new school opening in January of 2017. Once again, costs changed that plan as all construction bids came in too high, and the new plan is now scheduled to begin in August 2017. Based on history, though, I’d be shocked if we didn’t see another delay.

Tusculum is a high poverty and high English Learners school that was last renovated in 2003. The school whose community members complained about the possible rezoning is not quite so challenged as Tusculum is. Crieve Hall Elementary School sit less than five miles from Tusculum and its demographics are quite different. Crieve Hall has a population that is 47.8% free and reduced lunch, while Tusculum is at 94.9%. Crieve Hall has a population of 24.1% English learners, while Tusculum is at 83.1%. Crieve Hall was last renovated in 2010. Crieve Hall has only one portable classroom on its campus, while Tusculum has 22 portables this year. MNPS is planning a renovation at Crieve Hall while Tusculum is waiting for a new school. This is the first year that Crieve Hall has even had portables, yet the district feels the impetus to provide them with a renovation that will add 10 new classrooms on the same timetable as Tusculum will get its new school.

Crieve Hall is touted as a shining star. It’s a high performing school, and its parents should be rightfully proud of its accomplishments. Former Mayor Karl Dean and his Project Renaissance recently toured Crieve Hall under the guise of a program called “Discovering Great Schools.” Tusculum’s tests results aren’t nearly as impressive, but based on the numbers above, are we surprised? We shouldn’t be since there is plenty of research that shows the effects of socio-economic status on educational outcomes. There are also studies that demonstrate the effect of inadequate facilities on academic performance. I’m not taking anything away from Crieve Hall, but is it really fair to label on as a model and the other as a serious under performer?

Tusculum has some of the finest teachers in the district. Though I would question how parents can expect that to continue. Why, as a high quality teacher, would I continue to work in a crumbling infrastructure, with children who are already facing challenges in their home lives, knowing that their test results will define me as a teacher? Why take the risk that the district will not just take my results as justification for turning the school over to a charter school or place it an improvement zone, thereby placing even higher demands on teachers. We have created a culture that completely ignores mitigating factors while holding a select few accountable. Thank God that there are teachers still willing to take that risk, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for forcing them into such a decision.

It gets even better when you add “choice” into the equation. Last Friday was “Selection Day” for the Metro Schools Choice program. How many families do you think chose to send their children to be educated in one of the 22 portables at Tusculum? Better yet, how many Tusculum parents who had the ability to participate in the choice program decided to send their child to a perceived “better school” that benefits from quality facilities? When it comes time to lobby for those in-demand renovation dollars, who is going to be able to muster more voices? As a politician allocating those dollars, who is going to get more response: the cacophony or the lone voice? Once again, the needs of our impoverished schools will be shuffled to the side.

The head of the MNPS communications office, Janel Lacy,  once told me that school renovations weren’t all about politics. Yet somehow, our wealthier schools continue to see timely improvements while poorer schools get told to just be patient because everybody is doing the best they can. Funny, though, if a teacher were to say, “Just be patient. Everybody is doing the best they can,” they would find themselves vilified. Yet district, state, and federal officials remain unscathed. They just send the press out to write stories depicting things as not so bad, and then continue on the same path.

At the Crieve Hall meeting outlining the upcoming renovations, one Crieve Hall parent asked, “Where is the renovation money coming from? Wasn’t the money for the Lowe’s building supposed to go to Tusculum?” The district’s spokesman’s response was, “No, we are building a new school for Tusculum. That allows us to utilize this money to renovate Crieve Hall.” He forgot to mention that that new school was being delayed due to a financial shortfall. This is the way it works. Those that have the ability to demand action get it. Nobody ever tells the wealthier schools to be patient, everybody is doing the best they can.

It’s not enough that students, teachers, and administrators need to overcome the challenges of poverty; they now need to compete at the same level while overcoming a lack of resources at their schools. It is absolutely insane to me that we are taking children who have escaped from one deplorable situation, i.e refugee camps, and placing them in equally deplorable circumstances. When do we stop laying barriers in front of our most challenged students and start opening doors? When do we stop developing policies that encourage escape, vouchers and choice, and start encouraging investment?

Tusculum is not an isolated case in Nashville, either. I’m sure that if you were to tour our schools, you would find that the lower performing schools are all functioning in sub-par facilities. Parents in Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte and other urban area would most likely echo those charges. I have an interesting idea: let’s put our most challenged students in our most up-to-date facilities and our wealthier kids in the most outdated schools. I can, with almost 100% certainty, predict that two things would happen if we did that. One, academic performance would suffer for those wealthier students, and two, those schools would suddenly leap to the top of the list for improvements because of the outcry from parents.

I’m not trying to pick on our wealthier students, I know they face their own challenges and I am sympathetic. We do need to do more to challenge our high performing students. We do need to make sure that our public schools are safe. We need to give them as many reasons to invest instead of ones that make them want to escape. I’m also thankful that local high performing schools like Eakin ES, Granberry ES, and JT Moore MS recognize that the system works best when we all pull together. But you can’t solve problems until you recognize you have problems and we have problems. Our public school system is crumbling right before our eyes and its going to take all of us to save it.

It is easy to look at Detroit and consider it an outlier. The truth is, parents across the country need to pay close attention because what is happening in Detroit is the future of all urban systems if we don’t address the situation quickly. The NFL has a rules committee. This committee is responsible for making sure the rules provide all teams the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Public education needs such a committee. Bernie Sanders recognizes it, and maybe it’s time the rest of us do as well.

If politicians in Washington were serious about improving schools for all children, they’d consider enacting legislation to ensure that students got the opportunity to learn in equitable facilities. The last couple of years people have called for increased spending on infrastructure, bridges, roads, and such. I don’t think its a stretch to consider our schools as part of that infrastructure. Investing in our educational facilities would do more for lowering the achievement gap than Common Core, Teach for America, or the proliferation of charter schools that regularly get dragged out and presented as innovative.

The problem has never been poor teaching, lack of accountability, or low standards; it has been and remains to be tied to poverty and socioeconomic levels. We’ve never not known how to solve the problems, we just often show a lack of will. It’s past time we change that.

 

 

Missed Opportunities

2

12348020_10208344969730792_379231386901296211_nMuch like the Tennessee State Legislature, vouchers – or as supporters refer to them, opportunity scholarships – have been on my mind lately. For the last several years, legislators have done their best to try and make them a reality in Tennessee. Luckily for us, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. But I’ve been thinking, what if these scholarships had been available when my children started school last year?

I wasn’t always in love with my children’s school. I’m not afraid to admit that there have been some challenges. The first day my daughter entered those doors, there were clerical snafus, and I’ll be honest, I was a bit of a jerk about it because I was scared and unsure of what to expect. This was my little girl after all. Luckily, her principal didn’t hold it against me.

When we met her teacher, I fretted that she wasn’t “kindergarten-y” enough. Whatever that means. My wife thought she was pretty good and told me to pipe down. Looking around the halls, I quickly realized these children looked a lot different than mine did. Preaching diversity and practicing diversity are two different things. So, yes, this was going to be a challenge. It’s hard when your beliefs run up against reality.

If I would have had access to a voucher, I quite possibly would have pulled my child out of that school and gone with one I thought was better. I might have looked at test results and demographics and decided somewhere else would be a better fit. Somewhere where more of the children looked like mine. Maybe I would have chosen a place that didn’t require me to get as involved. But that would have been a mistake.

I will eternally be grateful for the level of instruction and caring my children have received at Tusculum Elementary School. They have been welcomed into a community that has taught them life lessons in the classroom and out. That teacher who I worried wasn’t “kindergarten-y” enough, has watched out for my children like they were her own, while somehow giving the same level of care and attention to all her other wards. I consider us extremely blessed. But in order for us to fully receive the benefits of this school, we’ve had to work at it and learn to work as complementary forces. It’s taken us being open to different ideas and allowing others to sometimes take the lead. Trust has been a major factor.

My son went through a period of acting out in gym class and in the halls. The gym teacher called and set up a meeting with my wife, his classroom teacher, and myself to discuss the behavior she observed in and out of gym class. It wasn’t a meeting to affix blame or paint my son as an unruly child. It was a meeting to try to get to the root of the behaviors. We worked together, proposed some solutions, enacted some joint actions, and I’m happy to say his behavior has improved, and where he once thought his gym teacher was mean, he now truly loves her. It’s not just us and their teacher vested in the child’s success. The whole building is involved. A building that if you just went by test scores could be described as failing. A description that would be wrong.

That’s also just one example of why I call bullshit when people try to preach that a parent is a child’s only advocate. My experience has been that there is a school full of advocates who are advocating not just for my kid, but for all the kids in the school. But it takes a great deal of willingness, on behalf of all parties involved, to collaborate. Parents need to trust that teacher’s have their child’s best interest at heart and teachers need to give validation to a parent’s opinions. Without this willingness to get involved, parents may feel like giving up or looking for a way out and teachers may not feel like they have the support they need.

Vouchers give an easy out and serve to hinder this collaborative effort. It’s like the difference between living together and being married. You may both feel really committed, but just living together means you can really bolt at any time. A voucher or opportunity scholarship similarly means you have the opportunity to leave at any time. And therefore, you don’t have to fully invest. We need everybody fully invested.

I’m not saying that things will always be smooth when it comes to your experience with public schools or that every teacher will be all that you ask for. There are things I often question and teachers that frankly, I wish were better. But there is always more to the story. Having children in a high needs school makes you painfully aware of the inequities in our education system. Take, for example, the building that houses my kids’ school, Tusculum Elementary School. Woefully inadequate would be an understatement. It’s outdated, overcrowded, electricity isn’t always fully functioning, etc. It serves a population with a 93% poverty rate and 71% of students are English Learners. In other words, it houses our neediest students in the most inadequate facilities.

Plans have been afoot for the last two years to rebuild the school, but somehow they always get scuttled. Whether it involves moving to a temporary location or building on the location where the school sits, there always seems to be a reason why work can’t get started and we can finally move past the talking phase. People always get offended when I mention that this this wouldn’t be happening in a school with wealthier, lighter-skinned students, but trust me, it wouldn’t. There would be 100 parents screaming, not three. We expect all children to succeed at the same level yet we fail to provide all with the same level of resources and therefore opportunity. Despite our willingness to hold students, teachers and administrators to a high level of accountability, when it comes to supplying them with the needed tools to succeed, we are quick to make excuses.

The thing is, people also conveniently forget these conditions when looking at test results. We expect the children attending this school not only to overcome a lack of resources at home, but also overcome facility limitations despite evidence that shows new construction increases performance  and home values in adjacent neighborhoods. This failure to provide adequate facilities should be unacceptable to everyone. Instead, we wring our hands, talk about kids trapped in a failing school, and contemplate abdicating our responsibility by working harder to create pathways of escape rather then pathways of improvement.

Let’s explore that well-worn phrase a little bit here – that kids are trapped in failing schools – along with the other popular one, that the quality of your education shouldn’t depend on your zip code. First of all, if we were committed to making all schools great ones, zip code wouldn’t matter. All schools would be equitable. If that were the case, we’d be in agreement. But that’s not we are talking about. We are talking about issuing lifeboats to some students and leaving the majority to drown.

Why are children “trapped” in a failing school? First of all when we label schools as failing it has more to do with the demographics of the school then its performance. Secondly students are perceived as “trapped” because their parents don’t have the resources to go elsewhere or because the community doesn’t have the resources to cope with the challenges of poverty. But guess what? “Trapped”, like every other word in the reformer lexicon, is a misnomer. Because when you look, as blogger Gary Rubinstein did, at what parents really think, you find that parents like their schools and would recommend them to others. As Rubinstein points out, “the solution for these ‘trapped’ families is to give them the ‘choice’ to get away from their schools that they like and then to close down those schools, thus taking away their ‘choice’ to remain in their neighborhood school that they are satisfied with.”

Some families may be able to take advantage of the opportunities, but most will remain in their community schools, in their neighborhoods that we are neglecting. I can guarantee you that if we start to issue checks so children can go to a school of choice, there will be little impetus to increase resources to those existing schools. The answer will become you’ve got cash, so go forth young man or young woman. Call us with your tales of success, but don’t bother us with your failures. Schools in poor urban areas would only get worse or focus so much on securing high test results that children would receive a less complete education.

Furthermore, where are all these trapped children going to relocate to? I’ll give you a hint. It involves religion. Catholic schools are already recognizing the value to them in supporting a voucher program. I doubt that it’ll take other religious denominations long to figure out the potential financial benefit. Recently in Williamson County, there was a town hall meeting about the teaching of Islam in our public schools. Parents were concerned with the potential indoctrination of children counter to their parents desires. Whether that is a legitimate concern or not, we are a country built on separation of church and state. Now, tell me how are we going to ensure that separation, if schools accepting vouchers are religiously sponsored? Good luck with that.

And if you are in a rural district, the odds are you wouldn’t have a lot of other choices without leaving the county. Unless some folks from outside suddenly saw an opportunity to make some money and opened up a new school. A school that wouldn’t be accountable to the local school board. Local control seems like a lot to give up for the possibility of improved test scores.

The closer you look at this whole voucher thing, the more of a canard it becomes. In his book Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh talks about how Chicago broke up the Robert Taylor projects by moving community members out to the suburbs in to separate communities. After a number of years, the majority of the displaced residents had relocated to reunite with their former neighbors. Once again, a sense of community won out over what outsiders prescribed as a solution. Too often we inflict our designed solutions when the answer lies within the community and all that is required is our assistance. Whats needed are solutions that facilitate community and not ones that potentially destroy it.

From a schools stand point, to even take a voucher student, they would need to have the capacity to do so. Why would a quality private school have capacity to take on additional students? After all, wouldn’t the market dictate that the most successful would be the most in demand? Once again, when we really look at the data, studies suggest that those high performing schools aren’t the schools that would be taking on students with opportunity scholarships. It would be schools that are struggling to attract students and can adjust the cost of their “opportunity” to match the amount of the voucher. Schools that in reality are no better then the ones students are currently “trapped” in. So once again, we are not so much solving as we are reassigning.

There is a quote from an Amazon review of Gang Leader for a Day that seems apt here: “For every person who makes it out, there are hundreds left behind and most people are unwilling or unable to do anything except close a book and forget.”  We owe it to our children not to forget. It was recently said to me that these children are our future and the way we treat them will be reflected in the way they treat us in the future. I certainly hope they treat me better than we are treating them right now.

I’m glad that a voucher program doesn’t currently exist. It would mean a lot of missed opportunities. An opportunity to teach my children that it’s not just about them and their success; it’s about all of us. An opportunity to teach that some things are worth fighting for, and nothing is more important than learning. An opportunity to be a part of a caring community that truly has a vested interest in their future. That’s what opportunity scholarships mean to me – missed opportunities. Now excuse me. I’ve got to go see what my kids school needs me to do today.

Who Really Benefits From Vouchers and Choice?

2

vouchersWe have come to the close of 2015, which means that we are getting set for the next legislative session in Tennessee. Once again, state legislators will attempt to pass a voucher bill. They’ll try this despite having failed at it during the last two sessions. As they drive to pass this legislation, you’ll hear phrases like “trapped in a failing school” and “zip code shouldn’t determine quality” bandied about, but don’t be fooled. Choice, as it relates to schools, is really all about abdication and deception.

What legislators are saying when they push for choice bills is, “We can’t guarantee you quality schools and we are not willing to fund them to a level that is needed, so you try.” By putting the onus back on parents, it gives legislators an opportunity to abdicate their responsibility to provide and fund a quality education for all children. They can make the argument that they’ve empowered parents and given them money as deemed necessary by the state to educate each child. If that child is still trapped in a failing school, then whose fault is that?

What parents don’t know but educators and legislators do know is that the current monetary allotment for schools is far from sufficient. Yet choice proponents expect parents to take that money and fund a quality education with it, succeeding where the state has purportedly failed. In essence, what legislators are doing here is putting the burden of making up the shortfall of money needed on the shoulders of parents. Parents will have to pay transportation costs, activity fees, and other intrinsic but not always apparent costs. Also as anybody who’s is a member of PTO can testify, pressure will only increase for parents to dig deeper into their pockets to make up any budgetary shortfalls.

Do you believe for one minute that if vouchers are passed that the BEP will suddenly be increased and parents will receive the actual funding needed to ensure a quality education? Not if you look at the recommendations from this year’s Tennessee BEP Review Committee. It appears that the committee is trying to make the argument that additional funding is not necessary despite previous years’ recommendations. Fortunately, public education advocates and some parents are on to this little scam and have been trying to educate the public to this canard despite choice proponents’ best efforts.

Legislators will also argue that the value of a choice bill lies in the fact that parents know best, which is bit of a deception. At the risk of being politically incorrect, this notion that parents are qualified to judge the quality of education their child receives has always been a bit of a head scratcher to me. To assume that because you are able to procreate, you suddenly become an expert on educating that child, to me, flies in the face of empirical evidence. Parents do know how to love and nurture their children, no doubt about that and they are often their child’s biggest advocate. But educating them in all the ways public schools do? Parent’s obviously should be involved in their child’s education but to empower them as primary decision makers is an abdication by legislators.

Do they mean to say that having a kid translates to a parent suddenly grasping classroom management and pedagogy? Child development is no longer a mystery, and you suddenly have the time and means to keep up with current educational research? When does this miracle transpire? Is at conception or actual birth? This supposition of parents being equipped also ignores all the challenges parents face in their own daily lives. Every parent does not have the means to fully engage in their child’s education. Many are beset by both external and internal challenges that prevent them from fully investing. These include, but are not limited to economics, housing, and educational status. Are we supposed to also ignore all the case records at the Department of Child Services?

Hmmm… it’s probably just a coincidence that many of our children who live in poverty and are struggling in school also have parents who suffer from mental illness, addiction issues, lack of education, incarceration, etc. But the concept of vouchers and school choice attempts to ignore all of that, and instead lift up ALL parents as a means of ensuring that ALL children are properly educated. The state is again saying, “Hey, we have empowered the noble parent to take care of this job, so what more do you want from us?” I say more, a lot more. Our founding fathers thought the role of education so important that the responsibility of educating children was written into most state constitutions. It’s time we hold legislators to the same level of accountability as they impose on educators.

Parents, before you get too upset with me, don’t think politicians truly believe you know better either. If they did, they would make it a lot easier for parents to opt out out of testing. Instead they fight hard to make sure that you as a parent don’t decide which test your child takes and which they don’t. The truth is, where ever the money is, thats where you’ll find the advocates of choice and vouchers.

Here is another part of the school choice process that always baffles me. When it comes to choosing the best school for little Johnny, how exactly does a parent do that? How does a parent identify that one school is necessarily better than another? Look at test scores? Not so effective. Visit the school? Pray, tell me how, in one visit or two visits, is a parent supposed to have any idea what really goes on in that school? If I show up to your work for a tour prearranged by your boss, am I going to get an accurate picture of your work place? Or am I just going to get a snap shot of an moment in an isolated day? Why should a school be any different?

My children are still young, but I’ve already become aware that they live in two worlds. One that includes me and one that is exclusive to their teachers and peers. Their actions can be strikingly different in each world. Just because I look in on them and they appear happy and engaged does not mean that is the permanent state and vice versa. All a parent is getting on a visit to a school is a snapshot and one that is possibly staged.
Furthermore, how many of us parents would truly recognize quality teaching from poor teaching? The art of observing a classroom and making meaningful deductions is considered difficult for professionals, yet we expect unschooled parents to make the distinction. Forgive me if I appear skeptical.

I posed this question to a fellow parent who was out shopping for schools: what are you looking for to make your decision? She replied, an environment that seems to lend itself to my child’s learning style and will make them feel the most comfortable. Well, the most comfortable learning style for my kids lately is through their IPads. My son has utilized Kids YouTube to learn to draw, and my daughter is using it to learn about fashion and gymnastics. Should I just take the proposed voucher cash from the state, upgrade their IPads, and call it a day? After all, they are comfortable and they are learning, and the wife and I could use that money to travel.

The unspoken element in this whole canard is that parents invariably will focus on test scores and word of mouth to make their decisions. Since poverty plays a large role in dictating test scores, you will see more parents, at least those that have the means, gravitate toward those schools in wealthier areas that are already considered so-called high performing schools. The result of this will result in increased pressure on our schools in high poverty areas. They will be forced to compete by increasing focus on test scores and marketing. It’s my opinion that this would prove disastrous to our educational system. Which makes it a dire threat to our society. It cannot be stressed enough, strong schools require strong communities.

It would appear to me that the whole concept of vouchers is one that shifts blame from one body to another. Elected officials are applauded for empowering parents, yet parents are required to execute a task officials are abdicating. It also further fosters an us-against-them mentality. Parents are encouraged to focus on what’s best for their child and let others worry about all the other children, thus relieving society of the burden of educating all children. Then the mentality becomes if there is a so-called failing school, it’s not our fault. After all, we’ve got our kids in a good school and everybody has that same opportunity. Or do they?

My theory is that this idea of school choice takes advantage of the inherent fear that all parents suffer from – the fear that they are not providing the best opportunities for their children. Parents are always a little unsure about how well their children’s school is serving them. Just this week-end a parent, who’s child is enrolled in a private school, remarked to me, “I think he’s doing well. I just wish I just knew if he was really performing on level with other kids.” Choice gives parents the opportunity to say, “We researched their school and toured it, so now we know it’s a good school.” But is it really?  Or is it more about deciding who your child sits next to in that school? Do not for one minute think that vouchers will not further divide our society. We may not admit, but ignoring the side effects won’t prevent them from occurring.

I work in the insurance industry and often say that insurance is more about making people able to sleep at night, because they feel that their families are protected, than it is about actually protecting them. You like to believe that the life insurance policy you bought will pay off in the event of tragedy, but we’ve all heard stories where policies didn’t pay or people didn’t make the best decisions about coverage, yet we don’t think about any of that when we purchase a policy. We accept that we are taking steps to protect our family and we leave it at that.

School choice bears a remarkable similarity to buying life insurance. A parent may sleep better at night because of the choice they made, but is their child truly getting the best education? I’d argue that choice actually does more to make adults feel comfortable about schools and is less about benefiting kids. I also believe that its high past time that we take a closer look at what competition is truly doing to our children and if adult needs are actually having a negative impact on their future.

The Tennessee legislative session starts in about a month. Please don’t allow legislators to sell you on the canard of school choice through vouchers.  Instead, demand that they pass meaningful legislation that will benefit all children and not just let legislators off the hook. Demand that they fully fund the BEP. Demand that they address the issues that place so many of our children in poverty. We all need to demand that every child gets a school they deserve. In other words, we should stand and fight and not give in to flight.