Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Agnostic As to the Delivery Mechanism"

At our 2011 National Policy Summit, held two months ago in Washington, D.C., we were honored to welcome renowned education reformer Michelle Rhee, who discussed the evolution that ultimately brought her to support school choice and endorse reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Of particular note was the following portion, in which Rhee explained what she'd say to people who questioned why, as the then-Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, she supported giving kids the choice to exercise options outside of the District. Here's what she said:
I do not believe that my job is to protect and defend and preserve a district that is doing a disservice to children. I believe that my job is to make sure that every single child in this city gets a great education. I am agnostic as to the delivery mechanism.
Not surprisingly, this has been a sentiment she has echoed many times before and since. In some ways it gets to the heart of our support for school choice. We do not believe in any one system as better or worse than another. We simply believe that if low-income families get the opportunities afforded to others as a result of  socioeconomic variables, they can then choose the schools that will help children flourish. We could not care less whether the schools were traditional public, charter, or private—we just want kids to get the best education possible.

Let's remember that there are many great traditional public schools, countless high-performing charter schools, as well as private schools. But there are failing public schools, unaccountable charters, and private schools that miss the boat, too. The point is that no system is perfect and every system excels in certain environments.

In the same way that Rhee isn't willing to support a system as an idea, it doesn't make sense for our fellow voucher advocates to oppose a system as an idea. That's why we took notice of some quotes we found in an otherwise misguided piece that characterizes the fight for the Opportunity Scholarship Act in New Jersey as an effort to privatize education. The overwhelming majority of voucher advocates there and elsewhere care about helping giving opportunities to kids who otherwise couldn't afford them. It's the driving force behind prominent school choice advocates like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rev. Reginald Jackson, and, we believe, Gov. Chris Christie. But the story also quotes the following from a state tea party advocate:
Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only, eventually returning responsibility for payment to parents and private charities. It’s going to happen piecemeal and not overnight. It took us years to get into this mess and it’s going to take years to get out of it.
Let's set the record straight right now: this is not what we believe. Our foe is not a system, it's people who are blindly protecting a system without acknowledging its faults and embracing ways to improve it. While we're happy to embrace a diverse coalition of allies and school choice advocates, it will always be the ends—not the means—that matters to us. If all public schools were excellent or all private schools were abysmal, we'd be in a different line of work. But as long as there is nuance in the nature and quality of the choices, there should be an equally nuanced debate. This has never been about either/or. Through vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and quality charter schools, this is about permitting choice where it would otherwise not be present.

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MAG

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