It’s true: ALEC likes school choice. Walton likes school choice. Jeb Bush likes school choice. Some of the folks who like school choice even say bad things about traditional public schools and teachers unions.
But this is true too: President Barack Obama is a fan of charter schools. Former President Bill Clinton is ga-ga about KIPP. Liberal lions like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hubert Humphrey supported public funding for private options.
More importantly, this is true: Growing numbers of parents and politicians of all stripes like school choice. Many don’t bash public schools or teachers unions. Many could care less who the Koch Brothers are.
I know this is obvious to anybody who’s managed to take a peek beneath the surface of the choice debate. But at this time of year, with state legislatures in Florida and elsewhere in session, complexity is not a common commodity. Anything having to do with school choice is sealed into a boilerplate narrative about for-profit this and right-wing that. This year in Florida, the privatization label has even surfaced in stories about student data and IEPs for students with disabilities.
It’s different in the real world. Out here, parents are flocking to new learning options for the most personal of reasons: the success of their kids.
In Lake Wales, a proud, blue-collar town in the rolling hills of east Polk County, the community decided it couldn’t wait any longer for district schools to improve. As Sherri Ackerman noted in her story last month, residents worried, as they do in so many communities, that if their kids continued to fall short, their city would falter too. So, they decided to go charter. There were no shadowy profiteers lurking in the orange groves, no foundations cultivating AstroTurf. In fact, Robin Gibson, the Lake Wales resident who led the charge, has close ties to former Democratic Govs. Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles.
In Orlando, the Black Alliance for Educational Options met for its annual symposium last month and drew 650 attendees – the largest gathering of black education reformers in the country. Fifty of them were elected officials. Most of them were Democrats. BAEO is fiercely independent. It’s undeniably motivated by pride and pain, by the apocalyptic outcomes for black children in America and the unlocking of any irrationally sealed-off option that might help. And yet it’s often tagged as a right-wing tool. Anybody who might have stopped by for the orientation session – where he or she would have seen an infamous photo of a lynching – would have recognized this description as not only inaccurate, but insulting.
In Orlando, a charter school with 70 percent minority enrollment is among the state’s elite when it comes to science scores. Florida students as a whole are doing poorly in science; the minority students among them are doing worse than that. And yet the Orlando Science School, which had 1,500 students on its waiting list last year, almost didn’t open. The Orange County School Board initially denied its application; the state Board of Education overturned it on appeal. I suspect few parents know the history; they just know it’s a good school that works for their kids. I suspect many people in Orlando don’t know the story either. Despite its accomplishments, OSS has received minimal media coverage.
All this isn’t to suggest school choice is a cure-all. There are complications and tradeoffs. There are legitimate grounds for criticism. The learning options that parents choose should be scrutinized in much the same way as the traditional public schools to which students are assigned. But the parents who choose and the politicians who support their choices are not a monolith. They may indeed be people who differ in their worldviews and might oppose each other on other important issues of the day, but they find common ground on school choice.
That kind of broadening coalition is one reason this particular educational movement is formidable, and opponents would be wise not to pretend otherwise.