Soho Forum Debate on School Choice

Tonight I attended a Soho Forum debate that focused on the following statement:

“Parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options.”

Bob Bowdon, the executive director of ChoiceMedia.TV, an investigative video website devoted to education reform, argued in favor of the statement and Samuel Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, argued against the statement. Bowdon gave an impassioned argument filled with the horror stories that undisputedly exist in the public school system: 

  • Unions that put teacher needs before students;
  • Miserably low test scores; and 
  • Low graduation rates

I have written about each of these topics  (see herehere and here) and Abrams acknowledges these issues in the public education system as truths. However, Bowdon’s argument for the increase in charter schools and voucher programs failed to admit that there are many charter schools and voucher programs currently in place that find students performing worse than the local public schools. He also did not note that both for-profit and non-profit charter networks and private schools that receive tax dollars through voucher programs  (Indiana is a good example) can go years with consistently dismal grades but remain open (see here); there’s little accountability. And if you are thinking that this is what is happening in the public school system also, then you are right. However, one of the crucial differences between the programs pushed by the Trump administration and Bob Bowdon and Sam Abrams and Diane Ravitch are that public schools are obligated to uphold certain student protections at BOTH the federal and state levels AND public schools are not making huge profits off of students. Yes, there can be gross mismanagement of funds. It does happen. But there is a certain level of accountability, exposure, auditing, and student-centered protections that are in place in the public school system that does not required of charter schools and private schools thar could receive tax dollars. 

To be clear, and I have said this several times in past posts, I do not think charter schools are inherently bad; they are not. I just care deeply about teacher protections (they have an exceptionally difficult job, especially teachers who work with students living in poverty).  But student protection, learning, opportunity, academic engagement,  social engagement,  and emotional well being should be the number one priority by a large margin.Whether an individual or company makes a profit should not be leveled with any this.

But back to the issues. I reckon Bob Bowdon did not mention these problems because, he, like many others, are conflating more school options with better quality schools (which I wrote about here). I think people hear the words “private school” and equate it with something that is inherently good. Bowdon mentioned that the Obama’s are not pro-school choice but choose not to send their daughters to public schools. He notes that they are more or less a part of an elitist group of people who, by there actions say, “choice is the best option for my children  but your students should be zoned to their local failing public school.” Bowdon’s point was that parents who can afford to choose do just that, but they also deny other families that right. Once again, I would argue that mere options is not enough. For Abrams, the problem lies with choosing to aggressively fund charter and voucher programs only ignores, and takes away from, the real root cause of bad schools, which is poverty. 

Poverty is a huge issue. Poverty and its relationship to schools is evident  (see here for a surface level and anecdotal example).  If you combine treating poverty as a non-issue with teacher unions that focus on protecting teachers at all costs (both Abrams and Bowdon provided examples of this–see here and here), you will get a failing system, to some degree. However,  we have enough evidence to show that charters and voucher funded private schools do not outperform traditonal schools. We have proof that both for-profit and non-profit schools abuse tax dollars and that CMOs and stakeholders come first (see here). And while there are students who are successful in charter schools and voucher programs, the only positive aspect to Bowdon’s argument was that families would have more control in what school their kids attend. But my long-standing questions surrounding quality and student protections have not been answered.

With that said, because Bowdon did not explain just how parents and students would be protected or that serious abuses occur in school choice expansion, I voted in favor of Abrams.

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