U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan brings an intellectual heft and a genuine compassion to his job, which is why he can’t be excused for his duplicitous talk on learning options for poor children. That word, duplicitous, is unusually harsh. So please allow me to try to defend it with three of his own statements, made all within a 29-minute span, to a distinguished audience at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's National Summit on Education Reform in Washington earlier this month.
Our discourse over educational options for underprivileged children clearly has advanced when the Brookings Institution draws a conclusion that could also find a home at the conservative Heritage Foundation: “Charter schools are by definition schools of choice. The promise of education choice includes improving quality and efficiency through competition among schools, enhancing opportunity for students of low-income families who may otherwise be trapped in ineffective schools, and spurring innovation. But the promise of choice in public education is constrained by the quality and timeliness of information on school performance that is available to parents.”
After listening recently to RiShawn Biddle's podcast calling on civil rights leaders to change their approach to education reform, I was reminded of an unpublished column written by one Florida legend in the civil rights movement, the Rev. H.K. Matthews. Matthews shared the piece with me and others after several civil rights groups last summer demanded that President Obama reconsider the core elements of his education agenda, which included the expansion of charter schools and the closure of consistently low-performing schools. These iconic groups, which included the NAACP and the Urban League, had good intentions in presenting their education policy framework, but Matthews found their arguments irrelevant today. Their call for equal opportunity, he wrote, was "limited by some familiar boundaries of generations past -- those of neighborhood and family income."
Outgoing New York schools chancellor Joel Klein is right to identify that low-income families deserve to have the best educational options available to them, but he frames the argument for school choice in a way that stops short of advocating for equal opportunities for our most disadvantaged families.