In the School Choice Debate, Both Sides Are Right
School reformers and backers of traditional public schools are talking past each other
The controversy as school choice philanthropist and GOP donor Betsy DeVos took office as the U.S. secretary of education this year might conjure up sentiments from the old Buffalo Springfield song: "Nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong."
Yet, as a longtime school choice supporter who for nearly two years has served alongside some wonderful people on my local school board, I would argue that regarding school choice, nobody's wrong when everybody’s right. School choice proponents and opponents see traditional public schools in completely different ways. Ironically, each view is accurate.
This difference in understanding occurred to me a few months after taking office, when I casually mentioned in a gathering of fellow school board members and school leaders that as a kid I had hated school, just as my kids now hate school. Jaws dropped. People offered their sympathy. It was as if I had announced a stage-four stomach cancer diagnosis at the same time my kids were stricken with hereditary leukemia.
Many backers of traditional public schools find it hard to imagine that many good people (and their kids) really do hate school. Though they are usually too polite to say so, these public school supporters believe such people (and their kids) must have serious flaws. For most school choice opponents, support for traditional public schools—and only those schools—is not a rational matter subject to social science. Support for traditional public schools is an emotional attachment akin to religious faith or loyalty to one's spouse.
Traditional public schools provided many good people sufficient preparation for work, as well as lifelong friends, a sense of belonging, and memories of dances, dates, and big games. When these Americans think of public school, they see teachers and principals who get up early every morning and stay late every night to manage the activities holding school communities together. Like attracts like, so the people who choose to work in public education or run for school board love American public schools as they are, not as school reformers like me would like them to be. Naturally, they resist reform. No amount of grumbling that Belgians or Canadians have higher test scores will change their views.
School choice supporters see a different reality. For us, traditional public schools have seen substantial budget increases since the 1960s, yet fail to produce voters who understand their nation’s Constitution, something all too apparent in the recent presidential contest. Further, as Dana Goldstein, the author of The Teacher Wars, points out, most American teachers have "below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities." In practice, that means we lack sufficient numbers of teachers with the capacity to develop our most academically motivated students, so we must import our technical talent from overseas.
Similarly, too few educators have the dedication and cultural awareness to mentor the third of American students now raised in single-parent homes. Coming from a blue-collar background, I saw firsthand the negative impacts of single parenting on class mobility among friends and family members. As Susan Mayer's research in What Money Can’t Buy supports, it’s simply far harder, in terms of time, patience, and every other resource, for single parents to raise kids. Indeed, the analysis of Stanford University's Raj Chetty and other researchers identifies family stability as one of the primary factors correlated with upward mobility within a community.
In the school choice debate, both sides are sincere and both sides are right. In my experience working in more than 150 schools throughout the course of my career, our traditional public schools succeed with students from two-parent homes who intend to go straight into the workplace after graduation or to the local state college. That is no small thing. In fact, it is a bigger success than most education reformers could manage.
Yet those same public schools, which succeed with many children, too often fail to serve students from single-parent homes, who need more mentoring than traditional public schools can provide. For those students—as a range of research summarized in Floyd Hammack’s journal article "Schooling for Social Mobility" suggests—more-encompassing, intensive institutions like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools are more likely to provide a path to the middle class. KIPP and similar schools were started and largely staffed by teachers from outside traditional education schools, such as Teach For America alums.
Similarly, our traditional public schools have trouble challenging students with the talent and drive to make it at top colleges. My own fieldwork has convinced me that such students may better succeed in certain charter schools where, in the words of Education Next journalist June Kronholz, "teachers are scholars."
Many traditional public schools simply can't attract these scholarly teachers. In her 2013 essay "Closing the Opportunity Gap," Billie Gastic, of New York University, points out that back in 1971 roughly a quarter of women in the top tenth of their high school classes became teachers; today, only a tenth of that talented tenth teach. Women no longer face severely limited job prospects, so the exceptionally gifted women who used to teach now enter other fields. Until we address this brain drain, we will never have public schools that effectively educate, rather than merely house, the students at the top and bottom of the motivation bell curve.
Given these manifold realities, Secretary DeVos and her state-level counterparts—the latter of whom matter most in the Every Student Succeeds era—should never attack traditional public schools. They should praise those schools and their hard-working educators, who succeed with many of our children.
Policymakers should promote school choice for the others, the outsiders, the kids who just don’t fit in traditional public schools. Kids like me.