Confessions of a School Choice Advocate: How to Defend Public Education, Now?

An interesting thing happened in the days following the presidential Inauguration: I received texts and calls from people assuring me, “At least it’s going to be good for Green Dot; good for charter schools.” My guess is that these were responses to our new President’s pick for Secretary of Education showing broad support for school choice. But when the rather nebulous concept of school choice is also rolled out in a policy wish-list that includes a Muslim registry, denial of climate change, and anti-immigrant everything, say nothing of the racial undertones and outright attacks seen on the campaign trail, it’s hard to see how this leadership might be “good” for charter schools.

Following DeVos’ controversial congressional hearing, on the eve of the Senate’s vote to confirm her nomination, charter supporters and leaders like myself must pause and consider what it means to be an Education Reformer. A wholesale embrace of Betsy DeVos and President Trump’s pro-choice policies ­ — and whether they include vouchers, for-profit charters, and more freedom from transparency and accountability as has been hinted — poses serious threats to our movement and potentially to public education in America.

There is real danger in conflating the idea of choice and quality. What makes charter schools successful isn’t a free market approach of unregulated education. Let’s be clear, a dramatic acceleration of charter growth is likely to lead to a decrease in quality. For instance, starting a quality charter school is hard work, and it is even more difficult to commit to turning around an existing school, especially when working in underresourced communities. These endeavors are largely dependent on finding unique and measurably more talented educators to staff a school in any one location. Otherwise we are simply replicating what already exists. Any effort to grow charters by deregulating the sector would spell long-term doom for a system meant to serve and uplift our kids. Mind you, regulation itself does not equal quality — quite the contrary. Our public schools — charter, traditional, magnet or otherwise — need the freedom to make choices for their students. But more than anything, they need to be held accountable for those choices with transparent oversight.

Vouchers also aren’t the answer. Studies have proven that vouchers have mixed records for low-income communities. At best, they provide a discount for middle class families to get into private schools. High quality private schools (if we could even measure quality in private schools with any reliability) are not sitting empty with hundreds of openings for students. Raiding Title I money — or even worse IDEA funds — to fund vouchers would be a complete disaster.

Every student deserves high quality public schools. As we forge a path forward, we must remember this mantra. Investments in school choice should focus on growing talented educators for charters (and public schools as a whole), easing the impossible barriers charters face in building respectable school facilities for our students, and supporting the charter networks that have taken on the difficult and unfunded challenges of turning around chronically underperforming schools and serving moderate to severe special needs children. All of these investments would increase the quality, not just quantity of choice programs.

At Green Dot Public Schools we lead 25+ middle and high schools in Los Angeles, Memphis, and Washington State that are all Title I schools. The large majority of our student population comes from underserved communities of color. Our schools are also homes for LGBTQ youth, recent immigrants, and complex learners. We must remind ourselves that it is no longer enough to stand up for policies that create positive learning environments for these students. We will also have to vigorously oppose any policy that would hurt these kids, or impede their progress. It is the solemn responsibility of public educators and education leaders such as myself to continuously remind DeVos, or any Secretary of Education under this administration, of the real promise of school choice — to provide quality education options to all students and foster greater success among low-income students. Any failure to carry out this promise should be seen as an attack on public education in America, and unacceptable to any Education Reformer committed to true education reform.