Great schools for all, not for some

With the election of Donald Trump, the public school reform debate is about start over again, pushing the narrative back to where it was eight years ago—with a Republican administration  insisting that “choice” is the path to dramatically improving outcomes.

Never mind that that most of  America’s public schools are doing just fine, and never mind that the parents and students in the worst schools—high poverty urban schools—are not likely to get any real choices from the choice crowd.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Obama administration hasn’t always been great on public education, but in the last year or so, Education Secretary John King has started to push incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity—finally putting a little federal muscle behind what the research has been saying for decades. Poor kids in middle class schools have a much better chance at success, and middle class kids in those schools are better off for the experience of diversity.

But with Trump’s nomination of Detroit billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the education department, you can forget about a push for diversity. DeVos is a longtime champion of “parental choice” in the form of vouchers and charter schools.

She has her supporters, for sure, and a large array of detractors. In a Nov. 25 story in her hometown Detroit Free Press, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said her “appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels.” In the same story, David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said, “I can’t imagine a worse pick…she wants to dismantle public education.”

We’ve heard this all before.

The question isn’t whether some students will succeed in charter schools, or would be better off using a voucher to attend a private school.

The question is whether our country believes in public school systems that deliver the opportunity for an excellent education to every student—no matter, as we say at GS4A, what their Zip Code.

Neither charters nor vouchers can deliver the promise of a great school for all kids.

Trump promised in the campaign to shift $20 billion from other education programs to vouchers. DeVos is a huge supporter of vouchers. But this approach presents problems.

How big would the voucher checks be? $5,000 or $6,000 would be larger than almost anything ever proposed before—but that’s not enough money to help a truly poor family buy tuition in a top private school. It might be enough to help the few remaining city middle class families to flee—leaving the city even poorer than it is.

Second, there isn’t enough private school capacity in most places, including Rochester, to take large numbers of poor city kids.

A November piece in Slate reported that a Louisiana voucher program has failed to deliver many promising results. The best—and most expensive—private schools have been unwilling to except larger numbers of poor kids (for a $5,500 voucher). The private schools that have accepted poor students have done so in the face of declining enrollment, suggesting lack of “customer satisfaction.” Students have seen their math scores decline in these privates.

Despite that, it’s surely possible that some children have used vouchers to secure a better education. The same can be said of students enrolled in charter schools—some are surely doing better than they were doing in the worst-performing public schools.

But Trump’s nomination of Besty DeVos signals a return to the mistaken—and tragic—view that private alternatives can replace public education.

Even with generous vouchers, private schools will refuse to accept the students most in need of a better school—because those students require the resources that even the best private schools cannot afford. Likewise, charter schools will continue to find ways to persuade parents of the most challenging students to return to their public schools before their test scores can be recorded.

While choice schools may be beneficial for individual students, they continue to drain away the  most promising students, leaving behind a pool of students even less likely to succeed—undermining the mission of public education.

To enshrine “choice” as the future of public education is to disregard the structural changes (diverse schools) that can improve lives and outcomes and settle instead for a system that delivers great schools for some.

That approach deprives millions of poor kids of the education they deserve, and deprives our country of the educated adults needed to “make America great again.”

The right answer is “Great Schools for All.”