There is so much talk about “choice” these days. Choice, being defined as the opportunity or privilege of making a selection or decision when faced with two or more possibilities, seems to be the new education buzz word. Achievement is so 2011. Americans enjoy the privilege of choice more than any other country and the plethora seems to be as American as apple pie. What clothes to wear and what store from which to get our milk are some of the hundreds of simple, everyday choices we make. Choices such as who to vote for, where to buy or rent a home, and where to send our children to school are big, impactful decisions that are not made daily, nor are they made lightly.
Governor Haslam recently interviewed Governor Jeb Bush, the Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence reform lobbying group, about his role in Florida’s education reform while in office. Toward the end of the interview Bush stated that he was “intolerant and impatient” of people that have an “illogical resistance” to the fast paced implementation of vouchers and charter schools managed by for profit companies. He went on to compare education choice to buying milk saying that there should be as many choices as possible–“I tell my friends to go to the store and look at all the different types of milk.”
By that analogy we can all assume that everyone can choose to buy whatever kind of milk that is available at the store. That’s a bad assumption because availability does not mean accessibility. If I live in the wealthier area of Nashville and my kids need milk, I can just drive to one of three grocery stores that are within a few hundred feet of each other and make my choice between multiple types of regular and organic milk. I even have the option to buy almond or soy milk if my child is lactose intolerant. But what happens if I live closer to downtown in a food desert where there is no grocery store near me? Perhaps I’m fortunate enough to have a car and can drive several miles to the store and buy regular milk since the organic milk is out of my budget. If I don’t have a car I could ride the bus to the grocery store, unless, of course, I am in a wheelchair and can’t navigate the bus and a bunch of groceries in bags. The corner store that sells magazines, cigarettes, and soda may have a ramp for my wheelchair so I can buy the one brand of milk they carry and hope it’s not past the expiration date. My choice seems to have been dramatically reduced, if not eliminated, due to some life circumstances, but ostensibly I have “choices”–I just can’t access them.
Our Governor, Bill Haslam, is now prioritizing the so-called concept of “choice” before actual student achievement. It wasn’t that long ago that he said Tennessee has an “immoral” achievement gap that needs to be addressed. Yet he recently stated that he is going to propose a voucher bill that will go to award “opportunity scholarships” to a hand-full of students living in poverty and attending failing schools. They will, supposedly, then use these vouchers towards private schools, if they can get in that is…
Private schools have entrance requirements that often weed out students with poor performance and those with disabilities–the very students that are the bulk of the cause of the achievement gap. The students that pass the entrance requirements and gain access to the private schools will have to be from families that can get them to and from school, as well as afford to buy them uniforms and books. The local education tax dollars for these children will then go to the private companies that run these schools and, subsequently, be taken out of the budgets of our already underfunded community schools.
Studies of voucher programs across the nation have not shown consistent increases in student achievement; so TN voucher holders, who will account for less than 2% of TN public school students, are not likely to see significant improvements in their academic achievement. While the voucher holders experience small class sizes and limited testing the low performing and disabled students who are left behind at public schools struggling with even less money than before will continue to experience large class sizes and relentless testing. As a result those students will probably not make significant strides, if any, in their achievement and the gap will, ironically, likely widen. Perhaps the Governor is comfortable with this likely possibility, but we are not.
If we want to see the results of putting choice above achievement, we need look no further than Minnesota: They have had vouchers and charter schools for the past 2 decades and the students who have participated in these programs have not shown significant strides in achievement nor have the district schools improved because of the “competition”. Our children do not have twenty years to spare to take part in the nationwide choice experiment.
We need improved achievement for ALL students NOW and we believe that adequate funding of our schools is necessary to reach this goal. (Tennessee is 47th in the nation for per pupil funding.) Stand with us for strong community schools and tell your legislators that we don’t want vouchers. We want adequate funding so all of our students can reap the proven achievement boost from small class sizes, along with individualized attention and support. We want all students to receive an equitable and excellent education in their community schools. And don’t forget to tell your legislators that WE, as tax paying constituents, are NOT OK with choice trumping achievement.
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