The most appropriate way to describe the policies of educational reformers, educational policy-makers, and government officials with respect to their support of charter schools and vouchers to pay for them is the word “abandonment.” Think for a moment about what these powerful men and women do and examine the underlying logic of their actions.
In response to our most challenged public schools that almost always exist in areas populated by Americans of low income, these reformers, policy-makers, and their government supporters rarely, if ever, talk about what we can do to fix these low-performing schools. Instead they are indignant and decry the performance of such schools, implying that things would be different if only they were in charge.
These powerful men and women, often with the support of billion-dollar foundations and wealthy business people, make a great show of demanding accountability from such schools and their teachers. They threaten dire consequences for both the teachers and their schools corporations and demand that they demonstrate what they call “documented” or “verifiable” improvement on the basis of annual competency exams. When, as almost always happens, the test scores for the students of these schools show no improvement or even fall to a lower level these reformers and policy makers throw up their hands in figurative despair; their voices loud and echoing.
They respond by encouraging the creation of charter schools in those communities to provide what they anticipate will be attractive and high-performing alternatives. They then institute voucher programs that allow families to take the stream of revenue that follows their sons and daughters and transfer them to their school of choice. Parents who are sufficiently motivated to take advantage of such incentives are able to choose from the newly created charter schools and also parochial and other private schools within or close to their communities. Some even opt to go to nearby suburban public schools that are able to boast of the impressive performance of their students on annual competency exams.
That many of the charter schools are unable show improved performance of their new student populations seems not to matter. Rarely noted is that many of the parochial schools, all of which are thrilled to enjoy the increased revenue from vouchers, are poorly resourced and have faculties that receive insufficient training to help them deal with this influx of new and more challenging students. We often forget that many of the parochial schools are unable to compete with their public counterparts on the basis of teacher salaries. These schools typically attract teachers who share religious convictions or who are seeking what they believe will be a more stable and rewarding teaching environment.
Even the high-performing suburban public schools may struggle to welcome the “voucher students” and incorporate them into their mainstream academic and social cultures.
While many of the new students in charter, parochial, private, or suburban public schools make a successful transition and demonstrate a higher level of academic performance, many others do not. What seems to matter is attitude and level of commitment of the parents of these transferring students. Just because such parents are motivated to take advantage of the opportunities that vouchers present does not mean that they are sufficiently motivated to become actively involved and accept responsibility as partners in the educational process. Many of these parents are more likely to conclude that their job is done and now it is up to the new school and its teachers to turn their children around.
In the interim, the abandoned public schools from which voucher students have fled are left with fewer students with a strong motivation to learn, fewer parents that care, and less revenue with which to work. We should not be surprised that the progress these schools claim to be making is often obscured by their more challenging student population.
When these schools clamor for more revenue with which to rise to their escalating challenges and to pay their teachers, their requests are denied. More often than not they are met with even more emphasis on annual competency exams accompanied by sanctions and other consequences as a result of their presumed failure to rise to expectations.
When the teachers in these abandoned schools, and the unions and associations that represent them, lobby for more resources and better contracts those requests, too, are rejected. In many cases, the legislators in these states respond with bills and proposals to restrict the collective bargaining power of teachers’ unions and, in some cases, threaten to eliminate the unions, altogether.
Consider the social and economic consequences when our government offers lifelines to only the most motivated families in our most troubled schools and then confines the remaining families to what we publicly label as our worst schools. Consider the consequences when the actions of our government seem directed at increasing the level of segregation, not just in our schools from the perspective of race, but more importantly segregating both our schools and entire communities on the basis of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
With righteous indignation our leadership is charting a course toward unmitigated disaster for our cities and, ultimately, for our society as a whole. We are fast becoming a house divided at a time when we can least afford it.
Our only hope of competing effectively in the ever-more dynamic and demanding world marketplace requires the very best that a people united by a common purpose can give.
Somehow we must reverse our course. Doing so requires that each and every one of us make a commitment to change the way we think; to solicit the support of our friends and colleagues; and, to act on the basis of our shared values and principles. And, we need to do so damn quickly!
Read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America to see exactly what we can do and how!