Published Online: October 29, 2008

First Person

Questioning School Choice: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective

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"I'm looking for things to throw at the TV," I texted to a friend while watching the last presidential debate, on October 15. Specifically, it was towards the end, when McCain and Obama hurriedly debated education issues. My outrage stemmed from the focus on vouchers and charter schools as successful reforms for a broken public education system, with particular attention to the District of Columbia.

Both McCain and Obama cited charter schools, and McCain stressed vouchers, as reforms for our struggling system. As a D.C. Public Schools teacher, I have already witnessed the implementation of these "reforms" and would hardly call them "successful." We have school choice, charters and the voucher programs, and yet . . . our school system as a whole still consistently ranks among the worst in the country. Funneling students out of failing schools has not improved the system, but instead left more students behind than ever.

McCain is especially supportive of vouchers —tuition credits the government pays to have a child attend a private school of choice—and this is the crux of his reform. "Vouchers . . . are a good and workable system. And it's been proven," he said during the debate. (It was at this point I resisted flinging my cell phone at the television.)

He went on to cite D.C. as an example, saying that 1,000 students were awarded vouchers (though it's actually closer to 1,900) and that clearly the program was successful because 9,000 more families have requested them.

Obama focused more on early childhood education and making college affordable, and in responding to McCain’s voucher proposal he disagreed with "the idea that we can somehow give out vouchers . . . as a way of securing the problems in our education system." Yet, like McCain, he is in favor of charters. "I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois," he said with pride. "I think it's important to foster competition inside the public schools."

I know that there are many high-achieving charter schools, such as the national charters Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Achievement First, which have illustrated the potential for improving achievement for some students. But the so-called "competition" between schools, at least in my experience, is patently unfair. The candidates are essentially supporting initiatives that drain existing public schools rather than improve them. Neither seems willing to wholeheartedly stand up for public education.

I have first-hand experience in the effects of current choice initiatives on traditional schools. Three years ago, I entered teaching from a graduate program focused in urban education and prepared myself to deal with a lack of resources that would come with teaching in D.C. Broken copy machines. Antique textbooks. No money for field trips. But thanks to school choice and charters, I also lacked the least expendable resource of all: students.

I ended my first year of teaching with just eight students in my class. Sure, small classes can be nice, but take a moment to imagine working in a school where students are lost to privates and charters by the day. At my school, teachers stopped caring, the principal stopped caring, and my students and I basically felt forgotten. Funding decreased with the declining enrollment. Our windows were missing panes for the entire year. Specials were dropped one by one. Music? PE? Only what I could do in our classroom. Even art was lost by the end of the year. Staff morale was lower than low.

The bottom line? My kids who moved and went to the privates and charters were much better off. But the kids who were left? The ones who didn't get picked in the lotteries for good charters, or couldn't get vouchers? I couldn’t in good conscience look them in the eye and tell them not to worry, because I knew as well as they did that they were being left out to dry.

Throughout that year, I lost students every few weeks and every time it was bittersweet. I hated to see them go, but I knew there was a limit to what our dwindling school could give them. They would end up in a more positive environment, and for this reason I was fine with charter schools or even vouchers as short-term solutions. But overall, our school—and many others like it--still needed to be fixed.

Moreover, those students of mine who were still left felt abandoned. In the early weeks of school, one of my 5th graders looked across the street at the Catholic school where two of our students had transferred with vouchers and said, "That’s where all the good kids get to go. And they get a playground." Why, I wondered, are we spending money to send a few kids across the street rather than spending that money in our own school, and maybe building a playground for all our students to enjoy?

In mid-October, I faced another challenge from charters and voucher schools that made me realize just how illogical this reform regimen was. Two students returned to my class after getting kicked out of their charter and private schools for behavior problems. As a home school, we were legally required to take them back, but unfortunately since they re-enrolled after the fiscal year, their share of the government funding did not come with them. Suddenly, I had an increase in students with social and emotional problems and no increase in resources. Because of our waning enrollment the social worker only came once every two weeks.

My co-workers and I persisted in trying to keep our classrooms bright and cheerful places for the students left behind. We did our best to plan engaging lessons and keep spirits high, even through a constant shuffling of teachers and students to balance class numbers. But with diminishing resources and the constant threats from our administration that we’d all be let go, morale plummeted. Despite my best intentions, by the end of the year I was "excessed" and had to spend my summer searching for another position within DCPS.

Maybe it’s not surprising that I was a bit jaded while watching the debate. It is my hope that the next president looks beyond band-aid educational reforms and instead mends the system from within.

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