Time and time again we come across elected officials who conclude the public school system is inadequate, and because they have the means, remove their kids. Liv Finne discovered prior to the election that our new mayor and her opponent did exactly that. As Mayor Durkan acknowledged in an interview, it was a “great privilege” to be able to choose a private school and “it was the best fit for my kids.” Cary Moon, who lost the mayoral race, is quoted as saying, “[F]amilies like me that are not having their needs met by the school system, those who have the means to go, leave…”
We felt our daughter’s needs weren’t being met at her local public school, in spite of being ranked as one of the top in Seattle, and moved her out. Fortunately for us, it was a choice we were able to make and apparently our elected officials enjoy the ability to do that too. Not surprisingly, as Finne points out, there are now more private schools in Seattle than public schools.
With so many of us finding that the school system is inadequate for our children, we ought to give the privilege Moon and Durkan have exercised to those without their wealth. It’s not OK that those of lesser means, who similarly feel their children’s needs are not being met, are unable to find the best fit for their own kids.
With a focus on the less wealthy, Sweden decided decades ago that all citizens should have greater choice in education. It adopted a child-centric approach to education where money follows the student, regardless of the means of the parent. They felt that no parent should pay twice for an education. Independent schools sprouted up across the country, many created by parents and teachers. Contrary to expectations, the less wealthy moved their kids to these independent schools in disproportionate numbers. The reforms have been embraced by both political parties, parents, teachers and unions.
School choice policies generally have truly bipartisan support. Elizabeth Warren has written in support of different voucher programs. And Senator Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, said this in 2012:
I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options, because I benefited from my parents having options. And when people tell me they’re against school choice, whether it’s the Opportunity Scholarship Act or charter schools, I look at them and say: “As soon as you’re telling me you’re willing to send your kid to a failing school in my city [Newark, N.J.], or in Camden or Trenton, then I’ll be with you.” . . . I’m going to be out there fighting for my president, but he does not send his kids to Washington, D.C., public schools. I got a governor in the statehouse, he does not send his kids to Trenton public schools. I could go all the way down to city council people in Newark, that do not send their kids—so what have we created? A system that if you’re connected, elected, have wealth and privilege, you get freedom in this country? And now you want to deny that to my community? No. I am going to fight for the freedom and the liberty and the choice and the options of my people, in the same way you will defend that right for yourself.
While Washington State has at last allowed charter schools to operate, which should be part of the school choice mix, the number is capped so low to be making any meaningful difference. But the early results are promising for those students that are benefiting. This is to be expected as other cities have experienced similar improvements. In October a Stanford study reported: “New York City charter school students show growth equal to 23 extra days of learning in reading and 63 more days in math each year, compared with similar students in traditional public schools.” And in Boston, the New York Times recently reported:
A frequent criticism of charters is that they skim off the best students, but that’s not the case in Boston. Many groups that struggle academically — boys, African-Americans, Latinos, special-education students like Alanna — are among the biggest beneficiaries. On average, notes Parag Pathak, also of M.I.T., Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test-score gap in a single year.
With results like that, it’s no surprise that nationally more than 70% of parents would support a charter school in their neighborhood, but support among minorities and the poor (who are generally stuck in the worst schools) tops 80%. There’s no guarantee that all charter schools will succeed. Some might underperform, just as public schools do, but it’s easy to shut down failing charter schools, which sadly isn’t the case for our failing traditional public schools.
Charter schools are sometimes, wrongly, accused of not serving disabled or special needs kids, leaving them behind for traditional public schools to deal with. Charter schools are public schools and just like traditional schools are bound by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law ensures that every special-needs student receives a free and quality public education.
New Orleans chose to use charter schools as a key policy to rebuild its public school system following the devastation of Katrina. Students with disabilities in New Orleans charter schools are now far outpacing students with disabilities in public schools elsewhere in Louisiana. And this experience is being repeated in other parts of the country too. Indeed, some charter schools serve only special needs children, like Garden Academy in New Jersey, which serves only autistic children. The founders of this school were motivated by a “critical shortage of appropriate services” for their children. The charter school model allows these families to create and offer a school program that uses the latest cutting-edge therapy for autistic children. The whole point of greater choice is that places like Garden Academy and other specialist schools would emerge in Seattle, as they have elsewhere, to meet the needs of the community, if those needs aren’t being met.
Some people try to argue that Seattle Public Schools do offer choices and by way of example point to its program for highly capable children. That’s little comfort for parents whose kids don’t qualify. But worse still, even that program favors the wealthy. Free testing is only offered periodically throughout the year. However, if the rich don’t want to wait, Seattle lets them pay to jump the line by using a private testing facility and get their kids into an advanced class right away. Those with talented kids but lesser means have to wait for months or even longer, all the while continuing to receive an education that isn’t best suited to their highly capable needs.
Another argument that is often levelled is that Seattle Public Schools need more funding. If inadequate funding were the problem, we’d expect to have seen improvements in Washington, where funding increased 34% between 2011 and 2017 as inflation remained in the single digits. Instead, the number of state-rated failing schools rose from 168 to 365. This same trend has been seen in other states that have increased funding without fundamental reform.
Believing that increased funds will solve our school’s problems neatly exemplifies a triumph of hope over experience. The least well off are desperate for better educational opportunities for their kids, as was captured so well by Davis Guggenheim (also known as the director of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth) in his documentary “Waiting for Superman”. The lengths minorities and the poor go to get their kids into better schools are heartbreaking, especially when they don’t succeed.
As those familiar with the movie know, Guggenheim was like us and planned to send his kid to public school, until he started doing the research on the school he was zoned for and compared it to his other choices, including the private school he finally settled on. The wealthy (like our new mayor and Cary Moon) will do fine no matter what the system. It’s the less wealthy kids and parents we should be focused on.
Similar educational models to Sweden’s have been adopted across the world in places like Denmark, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands. School choice is on the march across the states, and in dozens of other countries, whether it be in the form of charter schools, vouchers for low income families or broader programs like those in Sweden. It’s being advanced by Democrats and Republicans in the US and parties on the left and the right in other countries. And the biggest beneficiaries are the least well off, which is as it should be. The only question is, to paraphrase Barack Obama, when we will decide to be on the right side of history and allow real school choice here?