RootEd Co-Founder Terri Pease
As my plane touched down on the Friday during Spring Break, I turned my phone on and was immediately overwhelmed by the dinging and buzzing of messages. It had just been announced that our district was extending spring break by one week due to the outbreak of COVID-19. As we now know, seven weeks later, schools are closed for the remainder of the school year. The changes and unknowns our districts are facing are innumerable, but the one thing we have seen clearly: the buildings may be closed, but our neighborhood schools have been open in every sense of the word. They have provided meals- not just breakfast and lunch, but also dinner and weekend meals. The meals are available to any child, regardless of whether they attend school in the district. Our teachers and administrators have pivoted on a dime to completely alter the way they deliver their curriculum to their students. And, despite state standardized tests being cancelled, not surprisingly, teachers are continuing the same professional, high quality instruction as before. I would argue that teachers’ instruction is even more innovative and engaging because of the removal of the dreaded STAAR test. To assist in distance learning, districts are providing Chromebooks, and internet hot spots. They have even set up free WiFi in buses and school parking lots to students who need it. They have created nurse and counselor hotlines for students and families to use. Basically, districts are showing that they provide many of the vital services that families desperately need. Those of us who have been paying attention to our neighborhood schools and traditional districts are not surprised. We know that the purpose of neighborhood schools is not just education. They serve as foundations for our community to provide social goods to any and all kids. Their intent is to serve and protect the common good.
Over the past decade (or longer in some places), business leaders, “reformers”, politicians, and even some parents have forgotten the greatest strengths and benefits of public education in the name of choice and consumerism. By creating educational marketplaces with the intention of providing more opportunities for families, we started to prioritize individual freedoms and choices over the good for the whole community. Parents would never intentionally do anything to harm another child’s opportunities or future. However, the system that has been created by which traditional public schools and charter schools are pitted against one another to receive money from the same funding “bucket” has caused that very scenario to exist. A choice to opt out of a traditional public school creates a dilution of funds which has negative impact on the communities that need it most. If you add any type of vouchers, educational savings accounts, or tax credits to that mix, the funds are diluted even further.
Think of it this way: a traditional district does not construct a new school overnight. It takes years of population and growth studies, approval by taxpayers through a bond election, and strict guidance to bids and budgets. Because public schools are charged to provide an “equitable and adequate” education to any child who walks through its doors by the Texas Constitution, they are planned and built out of need. When a new charter school opens in the neighborhood, it requires no input from the district or community around it. Oftentimes, it is not based on need at all, but instead caters to families who can provide their own transportation, pay for uniforms, and donate a large supplemental fee to the school. In theory, why should it matter if a family chooses to leave their neighborhood school for a newly opened charter? Private schools have been around for generations- how is this different? It is different because when a family attends a private school, the tax funds allocated to them stay in their home district. But, when families leave their district school for a charter school, they take those funds with them. Proponents of school choice say that this is the way it should be- funds stay with the kids and parents can be empowered to make the choice they want. That’s fine, I suppose, but what happens to the school that’s left behind? If enough kids leave, they have to start making difficult cuts. The common argument when families leave is, “That is how the market works. Bad schools close, good schools flourish.” But, as I have seen with my own eyes, that is just not always true. We’ve had parents leave our highly rated, very popular elementary school because of promises from newly opened charter schools to “provide a private education for free.” Of course that gets parents interested, regardless of how great our school is.
This is happening every day in cities throughout the United States. There is significant pressure to allow the expansion of privatization efforts such as vouchers, charter schools and virtual charter schools. The privatization movement has deep pockets. They spend years and millions of dollars lobbying state and the federal government to pass bills that favor expansion of school choice. Where it may feel like initiatives to increase charter schools and vouchers is grassroots, it’s actually an “astroturf” movement instead. There are literal playbooks written to help ease these bills and initiatives through the political process from state to state. It is not well-meaning parents leading the charge, but instead well-funded think tanks, non-profits, and corporations sewing the discontentment with community schools.
Something that we know is that these entities will use natural disasters and catastrophes to advance their privatization agenda. Look at what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The devastation in that city was used as a reason to shut down the public school system and replace it with an entire district of charter schools instead. Parents had no choice to keep a school they loved. They were forced to join a lottery for a new school- some a long bus ride away, others with not so great reputations or a curriculum focused on a subject they had little interest. The new system didn’t ensure equity. It didn’t make sure there weren’t any bad schools kids would be forced to attend. It created a new system with the same problems, but with the illusion of parental choice.
Today our entire nation is experiencing a catastrophe not seen in our lifetimes. Schools in every state have been forced to move to virtual learning and, already, there are rumblings of needing vouchers so that families who enjoy this style of schooling can enroll in virtual charter schools in the future. Education reformers will use this crisis as an opportunity to request easing of rules for oversight or expansion of charter schools. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has already announced that states can apply for a share of $180 million if they create voucher-like grants for parents to expand virtual education. To clarify, this money is not intended for districts to help enhance virtual education. It is meant for parents to pay for virtual learning from someone other than the district.
The bottom line is this: our neighborhood schools have shown their worth during this crisis. We have seen our teachers thrive as they find creative ways to deliver enriching curriculum to their students through distance learning. Children are receiving nutritional and emotional support from our schools through meals and check-ins from counselors and teachers. In a time of uncertainty, our districts have steadfastly committed to serving our communities. In return, they deserve our full commitment- both financially and with our presence. As we move into the summer and begin to prepare for the upcoming Legislative session where there are sure to be massive cuts due to the economic crisis COVID-19 created, remember how valuable our neighborhood schools have been during this time and imagine what our communities would be like without their faithful presence.