Fred Hiatt recently published an opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled “The right kind of school choice for Trump to promote.” And while I can understand, and to some degree agree with Hiatt’s opinions, the piece does leave me with questions around implementation, quality, accountability, and the age-old question of “how”.
If you have not had a chance to read Hiatt’s piece, I suggest you do so here to understand the background to this post.
We are indeed in a time of change and swift transition. There are some who are waiting with bated breath for what the new Trump administration will do for school choice and education policy in general. And then there are those, (the majority of Americans), who simply do not know what to think about this issue. In any regard, Hiatt’s piece talks about what school choice may look like when President-elect Trump takes office and his nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos begins her term (assuming she’s confirmed). At the beginning, Hiatt reminds us that there are millions of parents who have the option to send their children to parochial or private schools or move to more affluent areas where traditional public schools are typically high-quality and high-achieving.
However, as Hiatt also points out, there’s another group that’s not as fortunate as those with access to ample resources. This certainly plays out in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 where many low-incomes families live and for whom the idea of having school choice is often a distant dream. As an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 8, it is my job and sworn duty to protect the civil liberties of our citizens and provide opportunities for them that can help improve their quality of life. We live in the part of the city that is equally called “the hood” just as much as it’s called “a gem”. The reason I felt the need to respond to Hiatt’s op-ed is because he writes this profound line: “the system would stop funding schools and begin funding families.” As a choice supporter myself, I completely understand this line of thinking and agree, in part, that this could be a very viable option for our families.
However, as Hiatt goes on to explain his idea – every child would be given a scholarship to attend school. Poorer children would get more money. Students with special needs would be given even more money.
Looking at the demographics of my ward the majority of our students would qualify for both of those criteria. It’s not uncommon to have students receive free or reduced meals at school or have an IEP for some type of learning disability. Unfortunately, this is part of our daily reality.
But here’s my issue with the article: Hiatt describes the system that he is suggesting as a bidding war, a competition for schools and systems “to woo” parents with the most scholarship dollars to their school. I actually feel slightly offended for the Black and brown citizens I represent and for our communities at large.
The act of “wooing” our parents will suddenly become worth the effort because they will have the largest purse strings to help operate schools. I have to wonder if they didn’t have the biggest scholarships, would schools be interested in the single Black mom with five children at the age of 30? She’s a high school dropout who comes from a cycle of poverty and is struggling to make ends meet. Three of her five children have special education needs. If she came to you on her own, asking for you to just let her children in so they can all attend the same high-performing school and have a chance at life, would you invite them into your school? Would you ignore their mis-matched socks and sometimes dingy clothes because quite frankly, working two, sometimes three jobs, to make ends meet doesn’t allow for free time for even the simplest things in life like doing weekly laundry. Would she be someone you would allow in your school?
And while you are competing and wooing this single mom, will you also help her secure a better job? Will you have resources that can help her complete her GED if needed? Are you offering wrap-around services? What are the other value-adds will be offered since, as Hiatt so eloquently puts it, these parents will become valued customers?
My concern is not about what’s possible with this new administration. My concern is about the full picture. Don’t count our parents as commodities only here to help with your school’s bottom line and then clutch your purses and wallets when their sons and daughters pass you on the street. Don’t canvass our neighborhoods encouraging us to visit your school with the promise of child-care and snacks and then not hire our family members in said school when you have openings. Don’t come up with creative tag lines and messaging to “educate” us on why your school should be the school they “invest” in with their scholarship dollars, but not be willing to understand why students may come to school without sharpened pencils or show up sleepy because they were evicted last night or God forbid, their single parent didn’t have time to do laundry last night and so their uniforms are dirty.
Only come to us for our scholarships and commitment if and ONLY if, you are willing to commit the same things to us. We’re not commodities. We’re partners, community members, leaders, and most importantly parents who, like you, only want the best for our children.
Troy Donte’ Prestwood is an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, DC. His post is republished from the education blog DC K12.