There has been much talk this week about school choice, because friends of Betsy DeVos sponsored a whole National School Choice Week to celebrate school choice and privatization.
And from people like me, there has been a lot written this week about how school choice breeds corruption—Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow that has managed to collect hundreds of millions of tax dollars for thousands of students who were not really enrolled, for example. And we have published reminders about how school choice really represents choice by privatized and private schools—because there are subtle, if not overt, ways privatized schools can select the students who will post high scores on standardized tests—and because privatized schools that are not required to serve all students and that are themselves being judged by their test scores have good reasons to kick out kids who aren’t going to measure up or who are going to be troublemakers. And we have been explaining how for parents school choice is predicated almost purely on getting the best situation you can find for your own kid, without much thought about all the other students or about the future of society as a whole.
I also believe school choice is driven by fear—fear of the unknown—fear that poverty might rub off on “my child”—fear of children who don’t look the same as “my child”—fear just because the proponents of privatization work to make public schools look scary.
By contrast, I look at public schools as good and comfortable places. Maybe that is because I’ve spent so so much of my own life in the public schools.
Maybe public schools seem comfortable for me because I went through public schools myself. The best years were at my public middle school and high school in a small town in northern Montana, a town where everybody went to school together. My schools were not scary places—sometimes a little boring but never scary. My mother, who came from the deepest kind of poverty in the Depression, did not understand the importance of out-of-school activities, and so school became the place where I could try out things neither my parents nor I had ever thought about. A friend took me along—in my first year of high school—with her when she tried out for something called an Opportunity Play—one act plays where 9th graders could be on the stage. We both got small parts, and in the years after that, I began trying out for plays—and won parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Lady Is Not for Burning. I have never acted in a play since I left my high school, but that public school’s theater program enhanced my education. I also had the chance to travel the distances between little towns all across northern Montana on the speech and debate team and to go to events in Missoula at the state university. My town’s citizens financially sponsored an ambitious American Field Service program, bringing a student from somewhere else in the world every year to stretch the experience of our high school’s students. Without at first telling my parents, I filled out an application to be an AFS foreign exchange student myself and, with considerable local financial support, AFS sent me to spend the summer of 1964 in Tehran, Iran. The plain old institution of a small town public school opened all sorts of opportunities for experiences I would otherwise have missed.
Then, like 90 percent of other parents in our society today, my husband and I sent our two children through our community’s public schools from Kindergarten through their high school graduation. Just as my own public high school offered experiences totally outside my family’s expectations for me, our public schools led our children to explore interests and master learning my husband and I had never imagined. Because in our day you could get away with skipping math in college if you took enough biology to balance the humanities, neither of us even had a college math class. My husband majored in American Studies and I in English. Our children, however, soared in math in our public schools, and both went on to major in math in college. I remain in awe of the math teachers in our public schools. And I’m grateful for the music program. For two of his four high school years our son enjoyed the opportunity of playing principal oboe in the high school symphony orchestra—an experience he will surely never have a chance to repeat. Our daughter loved playing flute in the pit orchestra for the high school production of The Wiz. She learned to play tennis in the public parks and recreation program, played on her high school tennis team, and even got a summer job at the community tennis courts. Our son joined the cross country program on a whim, and ran distance on both the cross country and track teams for four years.
Our children also learned about community during their school years. They walked with their father and me to talk with neighbors and deliver brochures about the need to pass the levies that keep our schools operational, and they learned first hand about the classes and opportunities that were cut out when those levies failed. They also learned that their teachers were also walking door-to-door to pass those levies and preserve students’ opportunities.
I suppose some variation of my children’s experiences might have happened in a privatized setting, but in truth, what benefited our children was the range of activities and classes they could explore in a large, comprehensive public high school. Our inner-ring suburban community is mixed income and biracial, and my children were, racially, in the minority all through their 12 years of school—something we and they together have considered a benefit for them. All the mythology about danger at school continues to be passed around in our metropolitan area as a subject of cocktail party conversation. But when I visit our high school, I am always struck with how well I am treated in the hallways, where students hold the door and call me ma’am.
The opportunities available in public schools like my children’s are there for the taking pretty much for free, whether children’s families are rich or poor. In our local public schools, despite that sixty percent of students now qualify for free lunch, the district has managed to continue providing a rich curriculum and strong art, music and co-curricular enrichment. Across the United States in these days of reduced school funding, increased expenditures on privatization and the pressures of growing student poverty, many school districts have been forced to cut back what they can offer their students. It is imperative that our society increase school funding to accommodate students’ needs in the poorest schools in our cities and impoverished rural areas. If our political leaders weren’t so intent on diverting public education funding to a separate privatized education sector, perhaps our society could also better help children who start far behind, or whose families move frequently, or who are homeless. Added public investment in the kind of social and health services Community Schools provide would help the most vulnerable students take advantage of the academic opportunities and activities that may already exist in their public schools.
This past week, when Ohio’s biggest symbol of privatization, the giant cyber charter school—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—was shut down mid-year due to fraud and waste of tax dollars, leaving thousands of students in the lurch, Jim Posch, the president of our local school board, sent a message to the community. I thought he explained the role of our public schools pretty well: “Our superintendent and her team reached out to all the families of impacted students this past Wednesday with enrollment information… We have a total of 61 eligible students. Forty are grades 9-12. We’ll keep an eye on their enrollment. Our biggest concern is for these students. We fear many are behind compared to their peers in so many areas. Addressing and embracing this challenge is what we do.”