On the surface, “school choice” sounds great. “Yay! I can send my kid to a school that matches his interests and will cater to his talents and he will succeed. I can use this handy voucher to send Federal money that I paid into the system through taxes to help pay for his education at a nice private school!” One of the arguments for this is that “failing” schools will be put out of business. But here is my problem. I have a son with special needs. He’s reading far below his grade level. He struggles with math. Science and Social Studies are not even possible for him to do alone. He has CP but is able to get around great, though his movement easily makes him stand out among peers. Private schools would be under no obligation to accept him. So with a voucher system siphoning off funds from public education, the services that would be available to him in his “failing” public school would be minimal. His low performance on standardized tests no doubt would help ensure that the school continues to “fail” and as he and others with difficulties push the average test scores down the spiral of reduced funding continues.
You’ll notice that I keep putting fail in quotes. Because a lot of the argument about the need for vouchers is that public schools are “failing.” The truth is that they are not. One of the indicators used to point out America’s “failing” education system is that we’re behind many (mostly Asian) countries in our math and science test scores. Again, on the surface we should all be worried, right? But if you’ve ever seen the process of education in most of these countries that are besting Americans at math tests you’ll know that they drive in rote memorization instead of critical thinking. Students seek only the correct answer instead of the meaning or understanding how to get to the answer. Students spend hours every evening, on weekends and during breaks at private academies further driving in the correct answers to try and score better on standardized tests. I’ve had students from Japan and Korea pick up a badminton racket or Frisbee and not know how to use it. That’s not the US system. We value a well-rounded student. Art classes, PE, music… Students work in groups, learn collaboration, focus on communication skills and problem-solving. So those same “failing” schools might compare differently if instead of comparing standardized tests there was also a creative writing or poetry component. Or if there were representation by the arts or even a simple tug-o-war.
American schools are not failing. They are different. We can’t compare our system to Finland or Singapore. There are huge cultural differences, value differences and even a big range of purpose. If you want to send your kid to a school and just have them score well on math tests then yes, public education may not be the right place for your kid. But it is the right place for my kid. I see him on the soccer field surrounded by friends that don’t see his disability. His friends actually come to the pool to cheer him on as he swims. A parent praises his behavior when they drop him off after a sleepover. The elementary councilor comments about how everyone in his class seems to like him. He’s invited to birthday parties of the siblings of his classmates. I’m so grateful that he’s at an American school — one that follows American standards which give him opportunities to succeed. If he was in the US attending a school I fear that those opportunities would quickly disappear.
I wrote the above paragraphs a few days ago. Since then this chunk of news has come to light. Just days after the confirmation of the new Secretary of Education a website dedicated to providing information about the rights to education that children with disabilities have has disappeared. I fear we will “make America great again” — by going back to about 1950 when children with disabilities were sequestered or lobotomized.
DeVos as Secretary of Education could be the worst thing to happen for the educational system in the US. Period. America will not advance in our scientific achievement by teaching creationism next to evolution. Our public schools can not withstand further erosion of funding by directing it to private schools. As many have pointed out, public education is not for individual children, it is for all of us. We all benefit from living around intelligent people. But America has begun to prove that we don’t deserve to be surrounded by smart people. Perhaps public education has failed us after all. I mean, Trump was elected somehow. How can a population of critical thinkers possibly be so badly duped? No matter. I’m sure that other countries will value both of my sons and their creativity and interpersonal skills. Skills they learned at a “American” school — a private school doing hard work to educate children, just like all those public schools in the US do.