Commentary: Widen the circle, broaden the conversation

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school choice
Parents rally outside the Florida Supreme Court in January 2016 to protect school choice options.

Recently, I was invited to a local coffee and conversation-type event in Florida between my former state representative and former neighbors who are predominantly white progressive women.

Then I was invited to a conversation at a late-night dinner event in New Jersey with five conservative white men.

Both discussions were more similar than different.

Both discussions involved topics about educational choice and branched off from there.

Both groups have heard a lot about people like me.

On the left, they like my work with the ACLU and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Then they hear that I organize parents who choose something other than their district school. That means I’m a union-buster out to destroy public education.

On the right, they like my advocacy for education choice , but then they learn I’m a democratic socialist. That means I’m trying to turn the United States into Venezuela.

Over coffee, I looked around and noticed all that we have in common – white, progressive, living in a highly valued neighborhood with stellar schools. And we could take time off to attend such an event in the middle of a workday.

Or between salon appointments.

Most women attending were against parental choice in education.

Of course. Our opponents are almost always privileged white liberals.

I watched these participants struggle to understand as I explained why I supported educational options for everyone, not just those who could afford it.

One mom tried to sum up their opposition.

“We support the democratization of the public school system,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means we support free public schools that are open to everyone.”

I smiled at them.

“We all know these schools aren’t free,” I said. “We pay for them in our rents and our mortgages.”

They stared at me.

“And our schools here don’t accept everyone. They only take kids from a particular ZIP code.”

“That’s not true!” one mother objected. “Our high school took Tony Dungy’s kids from Avila.”

I almost spit out my coffee. Tony Dungy is a black man, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a millionaire. Avila is a gated community north of town.

“That’s true,” other moms nodded in agreement. “They accepted Tony Dungy’s kids.”

“How nice of them,” I said. “But they don’t take kids from the projects around the corner. Do they?”

Silence.

“Do any of you know anyone who desperately needs a good school for their children? Do you know at least one mom who can’t afford to move into this neighborhood, who’s trapped in her ZIP code and can’t afford private school?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, what would you say? How would you explain your position to them?”

More silence.

A few weeks later, in a very different conversation with conservative men, it didn’t take long before they found out I leaned far to the left. Naturally, they wanted to know my views on transgender issues.

Instead of speaking for a group of people who do a much better job speaking for themselves, I tried a different tactic.

“That’s why we support educational options for all students, right?” I asked. “So every student, even those you can’t quite understand yet, will find a school that’s the best fit for them. Choice is beginning to accommodate students based on gender identity – and really, isn’t our message that we all benefit when all our kids are succeeding in school?”

Lots of mumbles and one guy looked at the ceiling.

“Do any of you know anyone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth? Have you talked to them about this?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, would you listen? Would you try to hear their point of view?”

More silence.

Perhaps we should open any and all conversations to include those who’ve typically been excluded. If you’re convinced you know where you stand on any issue, including educational choice, perhaps you should talk to someone who’s affected by it. Invite them into a conversation. Ask them their opinions, and then listen for a while.

We’d all learn so much, and I could go back to answering only for myself.