Last week, the president-elect announced his pick for U.S. secretary of education — Betsy DeVos, a staunch supporter of “school choice” measures that push for the increased privatization of public education. These measures include redirecting funds from traditional public schools to charter schools and voucher programs. While school choice measures ostensibly give agency to families and may inject entrepreneurial energy into a tired system, they also risk exacerbating educational inequalities through defunding and deregulation.
Milwaukee was one of the earliest U.S. adopters of a publicly funded private school voucher program back in 1990. Today, Milwaukee maintains a complex tripartite system of public, charter and voucher schools. The city should therefore recognize itself as uniquely positioned to inform discussions about school choice in the months and years to come.
When Milwaukee first instituted vouchers, the program received considerable nationwide attention for helping to revitalize Milwaukee’s strained public school system. However, over 40 percent of Milwaukee’s start-up voucher schools have since gone on to close their doors. These school closures have disrupted the lives of many children and families already experiencing instability in homes and neighborhoods afflicted by poverty and violence.
When I worked as a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, I witnessed both the triumphs of school choice and the serious risks. As a first-year teacher, I observed a veteran teacher at a successful voucher school whenever I had the chance. This voucher school ran like a well-oiled machine. The children chanted in unison. They sported pressed, collared shirts and cravats, and they swung their neatly shined shoes under their desks as they sat with straight backs and folded hands.
At a charter school, I observed dozens of children bop along as their principal, a young, black man, rapped for them about pride and hope. His infectious smile and talent for leadership clearly captured their hearts and minds.
Yet, for every such school, there were many failing voucher and charter schools where students struggled to maintain basic proficiency, and where teachers struggled to maintain basic safety.
Our education system — responsible for over 127,000 students in Milwaukee alone — cannot merely rely upon the energies of the most exceptional schools and educators, but must instead support the excellence of all.
Years later, I still cannot forget the children for whom I could have been a better teacher. I think back to the “bully” who frustrated me until, on the very last day of school, she looked up at me over her Popsicle and said, “My daddy’s in jail.” I remember how the Popsicle had stained her teeth blue. I remember waving to this 5-year-old girl as her bus pulled away, sinking into the knowledge that I would never get another chance.
One problem with a market-driven education system based on risk and reward is that we as a society cannot allow ourselves to risk the education of a single child, let alone the nearly half of Milwaukee’s black students who do not graduate from high school.
Because we must hold ourselves responsible for educating all students, we must understand the standout successes of particular voucher and charter schools only within a larger context. Not only do many voucher schools fail, but taken collectively, they do not currently bear equal responsibility for educating the most vulnerable students: students with disabilities, behavior challenges and other special needs.
For example, 2011 data revealed that only 1.6 percent of the students enrolled in Milwaukee’s voucher schools were students with disabilities, compared to the almost 20 percent enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools. In response, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, charging the voucher system with failing to accept, serve, and accommodate students with disabilities. Despite subsequent action from the DOJ, the ACLU asserts that discrimination against students with disabilities continues.
What’s more, we must ask why we believe a market-driven education system will succeed where market forces otherwise seem ineffective. If you walk down certain Milwaukee streets — say North Avenue from 25th Street to 35th Street in Metcalfe Park, where many of the shops and houses you pass are boarded up, where half of residents live below the poverty line — you have to question the powers of unmodulated capitalism. Where is choice here? Where are the basic requirements — health, safety or capital itself — that provide the foundations for growth?
Finally, we must remember that one of the greatest things we do as schools and communities is support one another. Just as the best teachers foster cooperation, not competition, among their students, they share, collaborate, and assist their fellow teachers. Teachers recognize that we exist within fragile webs. They understand how, if a single child is having a bad day, the entire classroom will feel it.
Some see the world in terms of winners and losers, but this is not a worldview that will square with our imperative to provide high-quality education to all. To the extent that we adopt "school choice," we must recognize that teaching our children is not a zero-sum game. If teaching is a “business” at all, it is a business in which we must lift all students up.
Erica Kanesaka Kalnay is a former Milwaukee teacher. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English literary studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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