Much 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.