Wishing for more common ground in school choice, education reform debates

A recent headline in the Charlotte Observer offers inspiration this season. “Compete and cooperate,” the newspaper wrote of charter, district and private schools there, “A new direction for Mecklenburg schools.”

REDEFINED_WISHLIST_FINALThis is not a fictional account and it turns on a basic truth about education reform: Despite the caverns that sometimes separate those who are loyal to the great institution of neighborhood schools and those who fight to expand the menu of learning options, the collective effort is still pulling in the same direction. Both believe in the social necessity of public education and both want to give every child the best chance to succeed.

So allow me to wish this season for fertile and productive common ground, and begin it with a salute to Kevin Welner, professor of education and director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His center is known for its allegiance to traditional schools and its steadfast rejection of most, if not all, alternatives to them. Welner is known, in part, for a book that treats tax credit scholarships for low-income schoolchildren as an assault on public education, that dismisses them as “a distraction away from proven solutions and real needs,” and includes the memorable line: “The inherent value of choice should … not be overstated.”

Needless to say, Dr. Welner has a different definition of public education than suits my tastes, but his recent column on Huffington Post made a perfectly legitimate point: Many politicians do use the term “school choice” as a catchall phrase that skips over the educational design and value of individual choice programs. Those on the extremes tend to view choice as though it is either an inherent blessing or evil.

As such, Dr. Welner writes: “There can be a true value in parental choice – matching, for example, a child’s interests with the focus of a school. But in making policy we shouldn’t assume school choice has some magical power. … Like most tools, school choice can be used in beneficial as well as damaging ways.”

Agreed.

In fact, Dr. Welner’s words sound so much like those of Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee school superintendent and national leader in the arena of parental choice, that I share a few from redefinED last year:

“There are two elements to choice. One is choice. There is a power to having choice. So when people say students don’t do any better, the issue is do you now therefore want to deny parents the option of being able to go to schools that do do better. … Now the second thing we have to work on is to improve the schools that they will have the choice to attend. Because a voucher is not a school. It’s a mechanism. … Freedom is illusionary if you don’t have the ability to choose from something other than mediocrity.”

These are two well-meaning educators whose thoughts are, at least on the surface, in agreement. That’s common ground, and it’s often the precursor to progress. Happy holidays.

Coming Wednesday: Wishing for awareness about the value of faith-based schools.

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