In recent weeks, Tony Bennett, Florida’s new education commissioner, and Michelle Rhee, the CEO of StudentsFirst, offered conflicting rationales for supporting school choice. Bennett told participants at a National School Choice Week event in Tampa, Fla., that school choice is a necessary condition for equal opportunity and social justice. Low-income children should have access to the same options as the affluent, Bennett said, and this is why he supports providing low-income families with publicly-funded vouchers and scholarships to attend private schools.
StudentsFirst, on the other hand, released a state policy report card that docked Florida a few points for extending school choice to all low-income children. The group favors policies that restrict vouchers and tax credit scholarships to low-income students in state-designated “failing” schools. Within the choice movement, Rhee’s position is called the failing schools model.
Ten years ago, the failing schools model was the most favored, and it’s still popular with state legislators who see it as a politically safe compromise that allows parents to use vouchers only when their assigned district school is “failing.” But school choice, at its core, is about empowering parents to match their children to the schools that best meet their needs. Those judgments don’t necessarily align with school-wide standardized test scores.
Rhee’s failing schools model misinterprets the relationship between students and schools. With rare exceptions, schools are not good or bad independent of the students they serve. Some schools are good for some students and bad for others. A state-designated “A” school can be a terrible match for a particular student, which means for that student the school is a failure. Bennett’s approach assumes the relationship between a student and a school is what succeeds or fails, which is why he thinks all parents should be empowered to access the schools that work best for their children.
The failing schools model also tends to inappropriately pit public versus private schools by implying private schools are better, which is not true.
Again, it’s the relationship between the school and the student that succeeds or fails. Just last month, I encouraged a low-income grandmother whose grandchild was attending a private school on a tax credit scholarship to withdraw him from the school and enroll him in a district school. I thought the neighborhood school would be a better fit, despite its low grade from the state. She took my advice and thus far it’s working out. I made the opposite recommendation for her other grandson. I advised her to withdraw this second child from his neighborhood school and put him in the private school his brother had been in. While these boys are brothers, they have very different personalities, and they need different social and academic environments to be successful.
Some students thrive in large neighborhood public schools; some, in small private schools. Some do great in less structured magnet schools; some, in highly structured charter schools. Ignoring these realities and limiting choice to low-income children in state-graded failing schools is bad public policy, which is why Bennett’s rationale for school choice is superior to Rhee’s.
Over the last few years, Rhee has moved from being skeptical of school choice to embracing it for a limited number of low-income students. This is progress. But I’m hoping Rhee will move closer to Bennett’s more progressive position.
Editor’s note: Last night, The Daily Beast excerpted a snippet from Rhee’s new book that details her turn from voucher opponent to supporter. Read it here.