The human face of education

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Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines of education think – the parents and students.

If you could illustrate media coverage of education choice, it would resemble a bird’s-eye view of a vast industrial complex: machinery greased by politics, walls whose mortar is money, and a maze of piping and tubing to deliver hot and cold takes.

What’s often missing is the human element.

Sure, most stories about choice focus on the actors surrounding the programs: legislators, school board members, teachers union officials, think tank wonks, activists. The primary concern is how policy affects institutions, and which side is winning the debate.

Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines think – the parents and students.

I know this because I used to be part of the problem. I was a newspaper editorial writer and editor for 25 years before joining Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. In my former life, I wrote dozens of opinion pieces on school choice, almost always relying on the input of legislative combatants. They were the decision-makers and influencers who were well-versed in the details and arguments, and usually easily accessible.

Now, having descended from the ivory tower and moved to the other side of the media lens, I’m tasked with reaching out to families who benefit from education choice to learn their stories. The difference in perspective has been eye-opening.

Parents who support choice are not ideologues. Most are extremely practical; they want what’s best for their child, not what’s advantageous for a certain side. Many will eschew partisan and identity politics to vote their naked self-interest.

They express frustration with a school system that is unresponsive to their needs, often while acknowledging they have no animus toward traditional public education. Indeed, parents will say they themselves succeeded in public schools, or even have other children who are doing well in a traditional setting. But the current setup isn’t working for one or more of their kids, and they are desperate to find alternatives that work.

Often, a parent will be moved to tears describing the obstacles he or she faces, be they bureaucratic or financial, or when attempting to express the relief that comes with seeing a child thrive in a new environment made possible by a choice program.

These families come in so many shapes and sizes, with so many individualized needs, it’s impossible to fit them all under one rubric. They need solutions, not excuses. Their stories need to be part of the narrative.

That’s not to say that pols and professionals have no stake in the issue, or nothing to contribute. Or that there aren’t legitimate questions about the impacts on school districts, or public education writ large.

Furthermore, although newspapers and media platforms publish letters and columns from parents of students in choice schools, rarely do you see those parents and their anguished pleas for help in the news stories and house opinion pieces, intertwined in the narrative with the professionals.

The media have no problem putting faces on other policy disputes, such as how welfare reform will affect the single mother on public assistance, or the working family of four living paycheck to paycheck who lacks health insurance. The same desire to humanize should be applied to education reform.

Keeping the focus on politicians makes it easier for people to choose sides based on who’s supporting or opposing: “Well, if he’s for it, then I’m against it,” or vice-versa. Seeing a sympathetic civilian might force more folks to give the issue additional thought.

A staple of local education coverage involves going into traditional public school classrooms and talking to students in order to highlight academic achievement, or an interesting new program (such as a robotics lab) the district is eager to publicize. And that’s great. They deserve the attention.

Yet, the same curiosity isn’t applied to choice students – not even when they’re gathered in one convenient place. In January 2016, some 10,000 parents, students and school administrators, along with several pastors from around the state, marched in Tallahassee to protest a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association aimed at dismantling the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. (Later that year, a state appeals court affirmed the constitutionality of the scholarship program). The media coverage almost uniformly excluded interviews with the families who would be most affected by changes in the system.

Assignment desk editors: In 2017-18, nearly 450,000 students in Florida attended a public charter school or used a tax credit scholarship or ESA to attend a private school. That’s a lot of stories to be told.