Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Headline Says School Vouchers Are Evil

There was a quite the hubbub when Michelle Rhee came out in favor of school vouchers.  The twitterati were up in arms.  It hit close to home in DC, a well known battleground for school vouchers thanks to never ending meddling by federal legislators.  Hers was a big stance to take by the former leader of a failing public school system.  It fed the narrative of a conspiracy that the recent wave of education reformers were trying to “privatize public education”.  And it was Michelle Rhee, the lightning rod herself, newsmaker, unpolitical politician.

But as is often the case, the headline drew the crowd and the crowd neglected to actually read what she said.  This isn’t a defense of Michelle Rhee or an apology for her take on an issue.  This is a question for everyone who has an opinion.  A challenge for those who want to create a better world more than they want to win or be right or make a name for themselves.  I am taking the moral high ground here because I actually read her Huffington Post opinion.  I actually understood what she was saying.  I actually disagree with her.  And I can tell you why.  It has nothing to do with politics or the name Michelle Rhee or taking up my allotted position in the education reform spectrum.

Michelle Rhee believes in school choice and allowing parents to make the best possible decision for their students.  But in many places there aren’t enough high quality schools. Many students face long odds lotteries or a multitude of weak choices.  We have a serious supply problem.

In the world of school turnaround, education reform, urban reform we speak in terms of years because that’s how long it takes to create an education system that is at least morally defensible as opposed to criminal.  If you are a parent, you can’t wait years for a system to be ready to serve your child.  Your child needs an education now.  Preaching patience and trust may be well intentioned but when you actually do it to real people, real parents, real students, you quickly realize that no matter the intentions it is a joke of a plea to make.

I’ve walked through the some of the same schools as Michelle Rhee and I’ve talked to some of the same students and parents.  I’ve heard some of the same stories and seen some of the same injustices.  Whatever you want to believe from a policy perspective, from the long view, from the district level, from the state level, from the federal level, from the suburbs, standing on the ground in some of the worst schools changes you.  So when someone says they believe in school vouchers because they couldn’t ever force a parent to send their children to schools that nobody would choose you shouldn’t scoff, you should listen.  When someone says they believe school vouchers provide more choices which forces failing districts to focus, improve, recruit, fight for their lives, you should listen.  These are realities that were co-opted by politics.  It doesn’t make them irrelevant or cheap arguments.  If they feel like desperate arguments for a desperate solution, maybe they are, but that is because the situation is desperate.

I don’t think school vouchers are the answer because they don’t solve the supply problem.  There still won’t be enough high quality schools to seriously impact urban education.  If school vouchers were ever scaled up enough to make a difference for more than a handful of kids it wouldn’t do much other than create a demand for more private schools that cater to the budget of the scholarship student.  Private schools, like charter schools, like public schools, can be good or bad.  The quality of education is not defined by type of school.  For me the school voucher debate, the mayhem that surrounds it, is a misallocation of resources because as far as silver bullets go, school vouchers are more of a prehistoric spear.

Philosophically I’m opposed to public funding for private schools like many people are.  But if I thought that school vouchers would create the type of change that would lead to a massive increase in the quality of education for our kids I’d set aside those philosophical misgivings.  But I don’t think school vouchers would create that change so I defer to my philosophy or my political leanings or whatever they are.

I can read some of the stances on school vouchers and agree with every fact and still come to a different conclusion.   That is the kind of issue school vouchers happens to be.  And understanding the other side, even agreeing with them on many points, makes me a stronger thinker, gives me the confidence that when I choose a side at least I’m not blind in my thought process.

Because if you actually read the platform on StudentsFirst’s website about school choice, it sounds an awful lot like Michelle Rhee wants to add a little public transparency to private schools.  So maybe the conspiracy is not to privatize public education but the opposite.  

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