The Harm That School Choice Brings

Note: A decade ago, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Middletown, PA, Press and Journal (3/2/2011) in response to a proclamation made by a (now former) Pennsylvania (GOP) State Senator; what follows is an edited and updated version of the original.

A challenge that continues to face public schools is not how to provide opportunities for parents to reallocate their children to schools the parents choose; rather, the preeminent and ongoing challenge is how to appropriately and effectively allocate a sufficient number of highly effective teachers to those students most in need of three essential qualities possessed by such teachers, their unyielding belief in:

  • the ability of all children, including those who are disadvantaged, to learn
  • their belief that their calling to be a teacher is a noble one of significant social importance
  • their conviction that a professional teacher has a moral responsibility to acquire and finely hone the research-proven skills and strategies needed to lead all students to mastery of the knowledge and skills that will empower them to succeed as adults

Taking into account the total number of teachers allocated to charter and traditional public schools, as well as to independent and parochial schools across America, the most challenged and disadvantaged of American students are apportioned a disproportionately low portion of those highly effective teachers possessing the qualities indicated above; said another way, the portion of highly effective teachers apportioned to disadvantaged students do not comprise a majority of educators (according to my non-scientific sample of one that has been accrued during four decades in public education as a teacher, central office administrator, high school principal, and lastly, as a state bureaucrat responsible for overseeing the development of school improvement plans for over 800 Pennsylvania schools).

The flight of students and teachers over the past decades from public school to private, parochial, charter, and high-performing traditional public schools, has created a growing vacuum of instructional quality in schools populated by economically and socially disadvantaged students. These students have been left behind by ill-informed politicians, disillusioned educators, and frightened, fleeing families. The latter tend to be politically and socially influential individuals who will admit—at the club or at neighborhood cocktail parties—that they want their kids to go to school with kids that look and act like their kids, and this unfortunate and unAmerican outlook of quintessentially advantaged and disproportionately white Americans is exploited by those politicians who encourage the culturally destructive power of vouchers, choice and charters.

A prominent Pennsylvania State Senator proclaimed a few years back that it was time to provide scholarships (i.e. vouchers) “for low-income students who are trapped in (persistently failing) schools” because this approach, in his view, is critical to “rescuing and affording them a means to a better life.” Doing so, he claimed, will bring a “transformative change and competition to our schools.”

Just as many national and state politicians insisted upon removal of staff and principals from failing schools as stipulations for the receipt of federal funding had never considered the reality that there is an insufficient number of highly qualified applicants to replace them, so too had the PA State Senator failed to see the reality of the following:

  • There are an insufficient number of seats available in charter and private schools for all of the disadvantaged students who might wish to choose those options, and because private schools are usually selective by definition, only the most able students will be selected to fill the few seats that are being made available to them (and of course, too often “the most able” refers to students who are six-foot five and can dunk from the foul line).
  • When students are able to leave persistently failing schools, as experienced over the past four decades by New Castle County (Delaware) public schools, it is likely that the academically highest-functioning students will be most likely to leave for charter schools and other non-traditional options. Their departures result in diminished school populations that lead to school closures. This leaves a smaller number of schools filled with an increasing proportion of disadvantaged children, which in turn results in their being deprived of the resources such children require, due to the reality that the advantaged parents who have traditionally supported public schools feel less disposed to do so because their children are no longer in those schools that most need those resources.

And when it comes to resources, recent history shows us that a disproportionate number of highly effective teachers will follow highly functioning students to tax-wealthy suburban schools that do not have to face the challenges experienced by persistently failing schools. In this reality, how will the students be rescued who are left behind in such disadvantaged schools, schools created by the competition politicians espouse? How are these most disadvantaged of students to be afforded “a means to a better life?” The reality is, as I was told a few years ago by a former member of the PA State Senate Education Committee: The conservatives on the committee not only don’t care about these kids, they think it’s a waste to spend tax dollars on failing schools.

The emphasis on turning resources toward vouchers and charter schools leaves fewer resources available for the greatest challenge facing our collective responsibility to fully educate all Americans: creating professional climates in traditional public schools that would lead to teachers becoming highly effective, and creating systems of Higher Education that effectively recruit and prepare highly effective teachers.

The deepest cause underlying our failure to meet this challenge may be a flawed and damaging, deep-seated, and seldom-publicly-referenced belief that economically disadvantaged children, especially those who are children of color, are not capable of mastering World Class learning expectations. It is this debilitating belief that results in the unAmerican and immoral, inequitable distribution of both fiscal and human resources among America’s public schools, a system that favors the advantaged among us.

Highly reputable research conducted by the Center for Performance Assessment on the “90/90/90 Schools” reported over two decades ago that there are, in fact, things that can be done to support disadvantaged students without excessive redistribution of resources.

The research revealed that in these schools, where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and more than 90% are from ethnic minorities, over 90% of these students “met or achieved high academic standards.” In these schools, fundamental changes occurred that allowed conscientious teachers to become highly effective.

There is no question that we can change schools from persistently-failing to highly-functioning without resorting to vouchers and charters that will ensure that the poorest of the poor will have the least effective schools. Because proven examples of how to do this have existed for over two decades, the burning question is not what to do; rather, it is, Why do we as a society persist in ignoring those examples while pursuing other choices that provide more advantages for already advantaged children while creating destructive disadvantages for students less fortunate?

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