I am caught in a weird place. I am a public university professor in a teacher education program who prepares people to be state-licensed teachers in our public schools. Thus, some critics would argue that I am a tool of the public school/government monopoly over education. But I am also an advocate of many other types of schools – “free schools,” homeschooling (especially of the unschooling variety), Montesorri schools, Waldorf schools, Quaker schools, etc…..pretty much any school along the progressive end of the spectrum. My support of the latter types sometimes causes some to perceive me as an enemy or traitor to public education.
I have had many conversations with people who choose private (or home-based) alternatives for their children and who argue in favor of charters and vouchers because they believe that if public educational dollars followed each child, then more families would be able to send their children to schools with progressive educational practices. I also recall myself being quite taken with the idea of charter schools back in the mid-90s while in grad school and reading Chubb and Moe’s somewhat-seminal book on charter schools. And just recently, I listened to a current K12, Inc. online teacher speak about her experiences working for the Virginia Virtual Academy, and was fairly impressed with what she described about this venture and her positivity about the program (she is a licensed VA teacher, has a Master’s degree, and is also a National Board-certified teacher). Then to cap all this off, I have recently agreed to be a board member for a private, contemplative/progressive school that is looking to open next year. So, I am extremely sympathetic to the arguments in favor of educational choice programs wherein public dollars go to support various forms of schools.
But when I look around at many of the charter and voucher programs that exist and are emerging around the nation, I worry profoundly about where educational choice is taking us. Daily I read Diane Ravitch’s blog, which points me to scholarly reports/studies on many charter and voucher programs. Overwhelmingly, these reports indicate that such programs are not all they are touted to be in the national press; that, in fact, these schools are not the “saviors” of their communities or the children in them. Not only are they not the saviors; in some cases, they are predators seeking to suck out as many profit dollars as possible from the public coffers, while providing children a sub-standard education.
So, I am stuck in this weird place – of liking a concept in theory, but really being unhappy with the attempted operationalizations of it. How do I reconcile? Well, the best source I have found that has given me some insight into how to balance my beliefs and understandings is a collection of white papers put together by Rethinking Schools in a book called Keeping the Promise: The Debate over Charter Schools. In this 2008 book, they provide chapters that detail the charter school experiences in various areas (D.C., New Orleans, Ohio, and Boston). While all quite interesting, the best chapter to me is the first one entitled “Charter Schools and the Values of Public Education” written by George Wood and the late Theodore Sizer. In this chapter, the authors lay out five guiding questions that have helped me to judge educational choice programs. And so, when I speak with folks who are critical of my support for educational options for all students, I try to make clear that educational choice is a good thing IF certain factors are also present. And my IF statements all relate to Sizer’s and Wood’s five guiding questions, four of which are “linked to the enduring values of our public system of schooling (equity, access, public purpose, and public ownership),” and the fifth is a question about the promise of choice programs “to use freedom from regulation to innovate and show how public schooling can work for all citizens” (p.8). These five questions are:
- “Question One: Are [educational choice programs] strategically used within a district to provide for more equitable treatment of students?” (p.9) (This is as opposed to certain students – e.g. English language learners, children with disabilities, etc. – being “discouraged” from enrolling, or being winnowed out after intial acceptance.)
- “Question Two: Do [educational choice programs] provide for greater access to strong schools and a range of educational opportunities for all families in the community?” (p. 10). (This is as opposed to schools only “creaming” the most enaged students and families from community schools.)
- “Question Three: Does the use of [educational choice programs] further the purpose of public education, to provide all our children with the tools necessary for lifelong learning and engaged citizenship?” (p. 11). (Again, this is as opposed to schools only allowing certain students admittance, as well as opposed to schools having a constrained educational philosophy that does not seek to create well-rounded individuals; rather, just good test-takers.)
- “Question Four: Do the [educational choice programs] operate as publicly owned schools, with full transparency and community governance?” (p. 12). (This is as opposed to schools taking in public funds and then having no transparency about how the money is spent, and having no opportunities for community oversight or say in how the school operates.)
- “Question Five: The reason [educational choice programs are even in vogue is because our public schools are supposedly static failures, and so opening up a true market of choices will improve educational for all. Thus these schools are] granted exemptions to rules [in order to] demonstrate a better way to educate children from which all parts of the system can learn. Thus we must ask, do the public policies that authorize [educational choice programs] provide genuine regulatory relief, as well as a system to report widely on their innovations and results? (p. 13). (This is asking if these educational choice programs really share their good ideas in order to improve education overall, or are they being so highly competitive with one another for “customers” that they become proprietorial and territorial about their innovations?)
When I use these five questions, I find myself more able to discern which of the educational choice programs (that use public dollars) are truly good…good for education overall, good for democracy, good for individuals and families. I think we, as a nation, need to be more choosy about our educational choices. As Americans, we love having the choices available to us in the free market, but for something that our public dollars will go to, we need to also put in place some “lemon laws” and make sure that the choices we are offered are all of high quality. None of us wants to purchase a shoddy product…and that should go for public services, such as schools, as well.