Mr. Secretary, we don’t drown students in Florida

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan brings an intellectual heft and a genuine compassion to his job, which is why he can’t be excused for his duplicitous talk on learning options for poor children.

That word, duplicitous, is unusually harsh. So please allow me to try to defend it with three of his own statements, made all within a 29-minute span, to a distinguished audience at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform in Washington earlier this month.

Statement No. 1: “We have to make sure that every single child has access to a great, great school. … Where we have high-performing schools – be they charter schools, be they district schools, magnet schools, International Baccalaureate curriculum – we need to replicate those successes. We can’t rest, we can’t wait until we have that great option in every community.”

Translation: This is his pitch for options, saying that each serves a role in a public education system that tailors instruction to the needs of all students. Not every student is right for IB or magnets, nor are these options intended to serve every student. In fact, privately operated and publicly franchised charter schools, which are a favorite of the president, currently are forbidden in 11 states.  

Statement No. 2: “I always think that in this country what works for wealthy people often works for poor families as well. In this country, for decades, probably for centuries, wealthy folks have had access to two, three, four, five, six great learning options. And poor families have often been relegated to one choice, and often that choice wasn’t a very good one. And the more we can empower parents and help them figure out what the best learning environment is for their child, help them understand what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are, and give them a menu of great options, and let them vote with their feet and figure out where they want to go – I think that will help to create a system of improvement.”

Translation: This is the secretary’s compassionate streak. He doesn’t want poor families left behind, and he insists they have more options. He also speaks favorably of the competitive pressure created when low-income students also have choices. Given that income is his dividing line here, the most obvious and relevant distinction on options is the inability for poor children to pay for a private school.

Statement No. 3, in response to an audience question about publicly supported private-school scholarships for low-income schoolchildren: “What I just think, whether it’s the federal government or the state government or the local government, I honestly think we have to be a lot more ambitious than that. What’s troubled me in the past is that folks have been content to save one or two or three children out of a failing school and leave the other 497 to drown. And this, to me, this is what has changed. The game changer is the idea of turning around entire schools. So when I have a failing school today, I don’t want to just scholarship three children out and give them an opportunity. I want to transform the opportunity structure for the entire school and do it with a real sense of urgency.”

Summation: First, let me offer a relevant political disclosure. I am a Democrat and was a “Yes We Can” voter who is stirred by the thought of removing red and blue from our educational crayon box. I also am policy director for a Florida program that awards tax credit scholarships to more than 33,000 students whose average household income is 17 percent above poverty. These students don’t receive the scholarships because their public school is deemed as failing. They choose them instead because their parents think the schools might be a better academic fit, in much the same way a student might choose a magnet program or a charter school. Further, these students are seldom leaving one or two or three at a time. In some urban areas, as many as 450 scholarship students come from a single zip code.

Finally, the suggestion that Florida is leaving other public school students to drown is the political equivalent of claiming the president is subjecting seniors to health-care death panels. Neither is true and both are insulting. We know in Florida from state-contracted research that the students who choose the tax credit scholarship are among the poorest and lowest-performing students in the schools they leave behind. We know that last year, their test score gains matched that of students of all income levels nationally. We also know from a respected Northwestern University economics professor that the public schools most affected by this program have seen their test scores increase since the scholarship began and even in the year between creation and implementation, which the professor attributed to a competitive effect. We know from a state oversight agency that the program saved $36.2-million last year, extra money that can be directed toward traditional schools.

This notion that a private option for poor students somehow condemns other students to failure might be dismissed as naivete or political excess if it were spoken by a lesser public servant. But Secretary Duncan is too smart for that, which means this intellectual disconnect is premeditated. That’s why I call it duplicitous.

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