Public School Choice

Letter in Concord Monitor: School choice is dismantling America

According to one college instructor, school choice dismantles the public school system and divides Americans. Here’s her letter to the Concord Monitor:

School choice, a movement started by economist Milton Friedman in 1955, claims that Americans need more say in where and how their kids are schooled. Viewed in isolation, choice seems a good idea, giving parents dissatisfied with public school other options.

The idea of more options is gaining momentum with the new Trump administration, which is poised to install a secretary of education with no experience in public schools who advocates for school choice.

Viewing school choice apart from its origins is a mistake. Movements react to other societal developments. The development to which school choice reacted was the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Opposing the desegregation of public schools under color of educational “freedom” – the choice movement sought to perpetuate segregation, inequality and racism. We ignore these roots at our peril.

Today, American schooling is a buffet. We have public, private, faith-based, charter and magnet schools, along with home schooling. Private pockets and public coffers fund all this choice, including vouchers, which divert taxes to religious schools.

As a college writing instructor, I meet choice-schooled students who’ve learned that our planet is 6,000 years old; that our nation was founded as a “Christian homeland”; that climate change is a hoax; that our Second Amendment “keeps the government from taking over.” Students claim that skin color distinguishes “inferior” from “superior” people; that men must take charge because they were created first. One student said he spent high school in a cubicle copying passages from textbooks – an “education” for which his parents paid hard cash. Another complained that women libbers, gay pride marchers and instructors denying him use of the n-word in class had stolen his straight, white, male rights. My choice-schooled students may be ignorant of American history, civics, the sciences and basic manners, but by gum, they know who they aren’t.

I don’t claim that public school is or ever will be perfect, though its results usually surpass those above. I do claim, though, that school choice is dismantling America and should be stopped.

American public schooling teaches more than reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. At its 19th-century heart, public school’s mission was teaching children to be Americans. Some kids’ families had arrived on the Mayflower generations back; others had disembarked a week earlier with two dollars and no English. Some had relatives born into slavery or lost to genocide; others had relatives who had owned slaves or slaughtered native people. Kids’ parents might have hired, or been hired as, servants; they might have toiled in mills, sweatshops or city hall. Kids walked to school from tenements and brownstones. Packed into crowded classrooms, taught by questionable methods, sharing textbooks, cracked slates and hard seats, the most valuable lessons these kids learned were about each other.

If we’re to live together in a nation of laws, we need to know each other beginning in childhood. We need to sit beside each other. We need to loan each other pencils, pass each other notes, face each other’s bullies, catch each other’s colds, giggle at each other’s jokes, share each other’s lunches and fight over each other’s dodgeball rules. We’ll often disagree, but as partners in democratic self-governance, we must learn about and make room for each other.

The slicing-and-dicing of American schooling – and its funding – into tiny, hermetically sealed-off slivers by belief, class, race, culture or status is no education at all. As with our news, we’ve developed fake education alongside its messy, grit-real counterpart. Fake education gathers like with like to reinforce ideas instead of challenging them. Real education gathers the unlike and considers new perspectives. Fake education assumes a future much like the past; real education reveals possibilities we never imagined. Fake education limits our experience and shrinks our world. Real education bellies up to the future and risks change.

One irony in “school choice” is the unhappiness it causes. Several studies show that the more options we have, the more dissatisfied we become.

More options take more effort to choose among. More effort increases stress and perceived risks in choosing wrong. More options invite more comparisons. When there’s only one option, we make it work. Adding a second requires time and effort to choose. Add a third, and stress rises as we wrestle with comparisons and the possible consequences of a bad choice. Adding even more choices invites comparisons; we decide we’d rather combine aspects of competing options, but that’s impossible. We can’t get what we want, so we’re cranky. We were happier with one option.

Public school, warts and all, is that option. Stop siphoning funding to divisive “choices.” Demand an education secretary who understands and supports public school. Bring back the diverse PTA, the multi-ethnic classroom, and help us know and work with each other. Only when we try to understand each other, grow – and grow up – together, does American democracy have the chance to flourish.

Read the full article here.

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