An article last week in the New York Times, noted that a recent study conducted for the US Department of Education found that student participation in the Washington, DC voucher program actually lowered student math scores when compared to peers who stayed in public schools. This is just the latest in a series of studies that have found that voucher and other choice schemes like charter schools most often do no better and very often do much worse in improving student achievement, at least as it is measured by that Holy Grail of corporate reform based measures, the standardized test.
The results have been so bleak that, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out, choice champions have backed away from arguing that school choice is necessary to save poor children from failing schools and now simply argue that choice is good, well because, choice is choice. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, says that schooling should be like Uber, as long as people have choice quality is not the issue. An article two days ago in the Washington Examiner echoed the sentiments of DeVos saying that test scores aren't the issue, choice is. Who cares if a school's test scores are low, as long as a parent makes a choice, the quality doesn't really matter. The author of this article, Jason Russell, says school choice should be like choosing cereal. Cheerios may be better for you, but all parents should be able to choose Lucky Charms if they want (I am paraphrasing Russell here, but this seems to be his point).
Those of us opposed to school choice schemes can sit back and laugh at these choice champions twisting themselves into knots to justify a market based approach to public education or we could turn our attention to what I think is really behind parents choosing voucher schools or charter schools. The clue is in the New York Times article. Families who participated in the voucher program in Washington, DC reported that, while the test scores indicated lower achievement, the schools were safer by a wide margin. University of Arkansas professor, Patrick J. Wolf, who was an adviser to the study, said that many studies showed that parents were trading academic rigor for safety. Of course they did. Any parent would.
How does a public education advocate defend the public schools to parents who want a safe learning environment for their children? First a few clarifications. When I speak of safe schools in this context, I am not speaking of the safety issues that are raised by horrific incidents like those at Columbine or Sandy Hook. These safety issues, as horrid as they were, are one off tragedies, perpetrated by very troubled individuals. I am speaking, here, of the day to day existence in the classrooms and hallways and cafeterias of inner city schools, filled with children impacted by years of poverty and neglect, located in neighborhoods that are crime and drug infested. Often these schools are not safe; often the walk to school is not safe.
Many charter schools, like the KIPP chain and others who copy KIPP practices, have responded to the issues of safety by opting for the harsh discipline of the "no excuses" model. No excuses is a euphemism for military style discipline that includes drilling students on classroom and hallway behaviors and shaming students who are not readily compliant for even the smallest infractions. It is a kind of "broken windows" policing policy brought inside the school.
This approach appeals to many parents, who may see chaos and ineffective efforts to address safety issues in the local public school. Many of these no excuses schools have been successful in creating a physically safer environment for students. But there is a cost. This physically safer environment is gained by sacrificing an emotionally safe environment. In a no excuses school, children are essentially cowed into compliance and if they struggle to comply they are shamed in front of their teachers and their peers. Since this treatment is being meted out by largely middle class teachers onto largely poor and minority students it smacks of colonialism, of not so much educating children as preparing them for a life of subservience. I addressed that issue in this post.
Parochial schools, too, have long had a reputation for strong disciplinary practices. Even when I was in my school days, parents would threaten my public school friends with Catholic school if they didn't straighten up and fly right. A choice of a parochial school may be appealing to a parent looking for that safer environment.
As public school advocates we must be able to come to parents with alternatives that reassure them that the schools are safe for their children to attend. If we think vouchers and charter schools are the wrong answer, what is the right answer?
The short term answer requires a doubling down on safety inside the public schools. It means spending money on the kinds of things that will make the schools safer. Here I am not talking about armed guards and metal detectors, but impacting the social and emotional issues that children bring to school with them. This would mean, at a minimum, smaller class sizes, readily available counseling services, readily available school health services, better paid and better trained para-professionals to monitor student behavior in hallways and other gathering places, a staff commitment to safety inside and outside the classroom, and leadership that puts safety at the forefront without sacrificing the purpose of a free and open learning environment. It means spending the money necessary to make sure that the children are in the safest, most nurturing environment possible.
The long term answer, however, is more complex and even more difficult. It begins with the understanding that our schools are reflections of our communities. If the community is in crisis, the public schools will be in crisis. If the neighborhood is unsafe, the neighborhood school will be unsafe. Any effective approach to safer schools must include efforts to make the community safe. This means, of course, working to overcome the impact of poverty and neglect on the community. This means taking a holistic approach to changing people's lives after years of policies that exacerbate income inequity and segregation. It means a national assault on the very real problems of the inner city. It means spending the money, expending the effort and recognizing that only a full frontal assault on poverty and its consequences will ever move the country along to the kind of inner city public schools we all want.
This is what makes the reformers' school choice rhetoric so dangerous and so appealing to its wealthy proponents. Choice gives the appearance of addressing the issue, without really addressing the issue and it does so on the cheap. Choice doesn't cost the wealthy the kind of money that a full on anti-poverty program would cost them. It does not require the income redistribution that would be necessary for real change. It is reform on the cheap and it is reform designed to create a compliant work force for the wealthy in the future. It is a reform, ultimately, that allows those of us who are better off to find a rationale to escape the responsibility for the less fortunate among us.
Real change in the schools will require real change in the prospects for families living in inner city neighborhoods. It demands a long term and long range commitment, not only to making public schools work, but to making a more just, safer society work. It demands a higher minimum wage, ready access to quality child care, ready access to quality health care, ready access to family counseling services, ready access to employment programs, ready access to reliable public transportation. Anything short of this full commitment is doomed to fail our children and we will pay for this failure with an unsafe future for all of us.