In recent weeks, Tony Bennett, Florida’s new education commissioner, and Michelle Rhee, the CEO of StudentsFirst, offered conflicting rationales for supporting school choice. Bennett told participants at a National School Choice Week event in Tampa, Fla., that school choice is a necessary condition for equal opportunity and social justice. Low-income children should have access to the same options as the affluent, Bennett said, and this is why he supports providing low-income families with publicly-funded vouchers and scholarships to attend private schools.
StudentsFirst, on the other hand, released a state policy report card that docked Florida a few points for extending school choice to all low-income children. The group favors policies that restrict vouchers and tax credit scholarships to low-income students in state-designated “failing” schools. Within the choice movement, Rhee’s position is called the failing schools model.
Ten years ago, the failing schools model was the most favored, and it’s still popular with state legislators who see it as a politically safe compromise that allows parents to use vouchers only when their assigned district school is “failing.” But school choice, at its core, is about empowering parents to match their children to the schools that best meet their needs. Those judgments don’t necessarily align with school-wide standardized test scores.
Rhee’s failing schools model misinterprets the relationship between students and schools. With rare exceptions, schools are not good or bad independent of the students they serve. Some schools are good for some students and bad for others. A state-designated “A” school can be a terrible match for a particular student, which means for that student the school is a failure. Bennett’s approach assumes the relationship between a student and a school is what succeeds or fails, which is why he thinks all parents should be empowered to access the schools that work best for their children.
The failing schools model also tends to inappropriately pit public versus private schools by implying private schools are better, which is not true.