Education choice not a zero-sum game

Scott Kent
school choice

It’s a winner for all families to have the opportunity with education choice to pursue what’s best for them. It’s a zero-sum proposition only if you believe that one system should be the ultimate decider of a student’s fate.

In politically polarized, tribalistic America, education has become yet another binary issue. For some, you are either “for” traditional public schools or you are “against” them.

The Florida race for governor is typical of the divide. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, seeks to increase the state’s corporate income tax rate to raise $1 billion for traditional public schools. Republican Ron DeSantis has advocated for expanding education choice programs, such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and charter schools.

“Different than my opponent, I actually believe in education,” Gillum recently told a crowd in Sarasota.

Sigh. Sometimes it seems as if the Hatfields and McCoys shared more common ground.

Politics may be a zero-sum game – for every electoral winner there’s a loser – but that doesn’t apply to education. Or at least it wouldn’t if the focus were placed where it belongs — on the student.

“There’s a misconception that supporting school choice means opposing public schools,” writes Virginia Walden Ford, the founder and former executive director of DC Parents for School Choice and a co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. “That’s not true. School choice means extending educational opportunity to find the right school fit for every individual child.

“For me, it’s about parents and children – not politics.”

Traditional public schools face the impossible task of being everything to every child. Many do exceptional jobs trying to meet that lofty standard. Others struggle to achieve the bare minimum. But judging a school or a district by an overall performance is certain to miss the individual stories of frustration and disappointment within even highly rated schools (or success and satisfaction at lowly graded schools).

Students have myriad educational wants and needs that can’t all be fulfilled by a large, centralized system that is subject to physical, economic and political forces beyond its control. It’s like scooping up a handful of sand on the beach. Many grains inevitably slip through your fingers.

The challenge is illustrated by the “personalized learning” movement, which seeks to tailor educational programs and instructional approaches to the distinct learning needs, interests and cultural backgrounds of individual students. In 2014 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided grants to six school districts (including Pinellas and Lake counties in Florida) and six regional partners to design and launch personalized school models. The Center on Reinventing Public Education was tasked with studying the project.

In June, the center released its conclusions and recommendations. The results were mixed and were marked by a struggle to replicate promising practices across systems. The authors noted that despite encouraging experimentation, central offices “failed to fundamentally change structures, policies and supports to facilitate innovation in schools,” which highlighted “the difficulty of innovating inside a system that was never designed for innovation.” Indeed, they write, “large bureaucracies, governed by rules, specialization, and hierarchy are not designed to support innovation.”

CRPE Director Robin Lake believes the current system was set up to deliver an “average education to the average student,” but that in fact there is no such thing as an “average student.” A “seismic shift” is needed in public education, she says, “not just a little tinkering here and there around policy.” That will require “a real commitment to changing the way schools have autonomy, that schools are overseen, and the types of supports and trainings that are offered to educators.”

The question is whether leviathan is capable of remaking itself. Decades of evidence suggest no.

Try as they might, traditional public schools are limited in the options they can provide. It’s like getting your choice of any sandwich at Subway. Economies of scale dictate a certain level of standardization that can’t accommodate every unique situation.

Many students require more than what the traditional system can deliver. Providing them with alternatives doesn’t compete with that paradigm, it complements it. Clearly, families increasingly are demanding more choices:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog), provides need-based financial assistance to students to attend private schools. It has grown from 40,000 students in 2011-12 to nearly 100,000 this school year.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2015, public charter school enrollment increased from 400,000 to 2.8 million. Meanwhile, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 1 percent to 6 percent.
  • In the 20 years since Florida enacted its charter school law, the state has seen charters grow from five schools serving 574 students to more than 650 charter schools educating nearly 300,000.

And that doesn’t even account for the rise in homeschooling and online learning. It would be absurd to argue these families aren’t “for” education. On the contrary, they are committed to pursuing the best education they can find, without fear or favor for one “side” or the other.

To paraphrase a recent president: If you like your traditional public school, you can keep your traditional public school. But for those who need something different, they deserve to have options. It’s a winner for all families to have the opportunity and the means to pursue what’s best for them. It’s a zero-sum proposition only if you believe that one system should be the ultimate decider of a student’s fate.

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