‘Either/or’ view of public education is a false choice

Travis Pillow

A media meme has taken hold recently, in Florida and nationally, that claims parental choice advocates are categorically hostile to public schools.

The Tampa Bay Times put it this way in a recent editorial pushing back against strong comments by House Speaker Richard Corcoran: “Too many school choice supporters have framed the future of education as an either/or proposition. That’s a terrible way to craft education policy.”

In the New York Times, Katherine Stewart, a chronicler of the Christian right, claimed school choice advocate and prospective U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was leading an apocalyptic crusade in which “(g)utting public education will be just the beginning.”

In a column criticizing DeVos’ nomination, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead asserted: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good.”

This Manichean view, which in recent weeks has been widely attributed to advocates of educational choice, is mostly a red herring.

Tellingly, the Florida newspaper didn’t cite a single example of school choice supporters espousing such a view. Stewart’s notions about DeVos’ alleged anti-public school agenda rested on such spurious evidence as a 37-year-old quote from the late Jerry Falwell. And Mead failed to note DeVos’ actual stated views on public education, which are anything but either/or:

We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.

Here in Florida, school choice proponents have adopted a similarly ecumenical outlook, like the educator who “never saw a line between public school students and private school students,” the religious leaders who argue a private school choice program complements neighborhood public schools, or the school board members who advocate expanding educational options and improving public schools, at the same time.

The Tampa Bay Times‘ take was accompanied by its acclaim for a bipartisan quartet of state senators who pledged to pare back standardized testing and eke out some extra funding for public schools in a tight budget year. Each of these lawmakers has, at various times, championed funding increases for traditional Florida public schools. And while their positions sometimes vary, each of them also has voted for legislation, on the floor or in committee, that expanded charter schools, boosted digital learning, created new private scholarship programs or allowed more children to qualify for tax credit scholarships

These lawmakers seem to be aligned with Florida families, who send 1.5 million students to publicly funded options other than their assigned schools, and who still enroll the vast majority of Florida’s students in public schools of various types. They increasingly do so by choice.

And many of those who choose private options are also deeply invested in public education. A student who attends St. Andrews Catholic School with a tax credit scholarship might matriculate to Orange County’s district-run Evans High School. A public-school teacher might find private schools work for her children. A mother might send some of her children to public schools and one child to a private school, because that’s what suits their individual learning needs.

The reality that private options work with public education system, not against it, is reinforced by research. The Florida tax credit scholarship program saves the state money that can be plowed back into public schools. And studies have repeatedly shown the program has spurred small, but statistically significant, improvements in public schools.

That said, there are a few people in Florida on both sides of the issue who do see traditional schools and parental choice as an either/or proposition. One of them is Joanne McCall, president of the statewide teachers union. Her organization has generally opposed every education program that is not conducted in district-operated schools with teachers represented by a union contract.

When asked by Politico Florida to explain her organization’s extensive political campaign contributions in the 2016 elections, McCall said: “This is about us versus them – public schools versus vouchers [and] for-profit charter schools.”

To paraphrase from the Times, that’s a thoughtlessly narrow view of our educational future.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and employs the author of this post, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program in Florida.

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