Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More from James Forman

Going back to the discussion about vouchers that John Kirtley and James Forman had, James makes an interesting point about how a lot of people love the idea of vouchers when it means low-income minority kids can attend parochial schools in their neighborhood, but sing a different tune when, say, a kid in Newark wants a seat at the public school the voucher supporters' kids go to (i.e., a nearby suburban school that serves mostly rich white kids):
Let's remember how this all started.  John criticized Obama's speech to the NEA.  Basically his critique was that Obama should support vouchers and tax credits, or private school choice if you prefer.  I responded by saying, more or less, that lots of smart reform-oriented people don't support vouchers, and we should not attack Obama for not making this part of his education agenda.

John's response focused on the mom who wants to send her kid to the private school down the street, and what do we say to her.  I will address that in a minute, but first Obama.  Obama is running for president, and as a candidate he has to decide what his agenda is going to be.  As I have written previously (which might surprise John, as he seems to believe I am a voucher opponent), I support vouchers because I'm in the camp of "let's try anything that might work," and I support vouchers as an experiment until we do enough research to see whether they work.  On this issue, as in education policy generally, I have my gut instincts and core beliefs like everyone else, but I try to be driven by what we can learn from the research. 

However, I think reasonable people can disagree on whether vouchers are worth pursuing.  This might be where John and I disagree; he may view the case for vouchers as a slam-dunk.  I think reasonable minds can differ because I've read many (but not all) of the studies, and I think the research findings so far have been mixed.  Similarly, I think it is reasonable for people to be worried about a host of other issues--church/state, hurting the public system, etc.  And I think Obama, like any candidate, has to pick his priorities, and if he wants to endorse improving teacher quality but not vouchers, I think that is ok, and certainly not a reason to back away from him.  Indeed, my reference to your slides was meant to show that you and a lot of other people think that if we have to pick one reform, teacher quality is likely to have a bigger pay-off than vouchers.  So for all these reasons, I am a reform-oriented Democratic who is not "pissed off" that Obama does not support vouchers.

Now, to the mom you discussed.  I agree, 100%, that she has a powerful moral case.  It is the main reason I support the voucher experiment, because I want to find out what happens--to the kids who go and those who stay behind--when we let kids like her child go to private schools using public money. 

But here's another mom I want to ask you about, a mom that I have hardly ever heard voucher supporters talking about, and a mom largely absent from the discussion of choice in NCLB (even my friends at Ed Trust don't talk about her).  This mom is African American and lives in a big city, near the border of a boundary with a suburban district.  Her neighborhood school is full of kids that, like her child, qualify for free lunch.  And the school is lousy, no place any of us would want to send our child to.  A long walk or short bus ride away is another school, really good, high test scores, good climate.  The main reason she wants to send her child there is because she thinks he will learn more math and english, but she also likes the fact that this school has a good number of Asian and white kids (along with a few blacks and Latinos).  She believes in integration--she herself grew up in a mixed community, and she believes her son is being denied the chance she had.  She is fearful that as an adult not only won't he be well-educated in the 3 R's, but he won't have friends of different races and backgrounds. 

She can't go to that other school, though, because a line on a map that she can't even see says that it is a different school district.  And she can't afford to move there.  She has heard about NCLB and even received a letter offering her a transfer, but it was to other schools in her own district, which are as racially isolated as hers, with lower test scores and further away than this nearby school she wants to attend. 

Whitney, to re-state your question and John's question, in all my life, as I have read and talked about choice, charters, vouchers, etc., I have never heard a good answer to what do we say to that particular mother.  But whenever I bring the question up in the choice community--the place where I would assume everyone would be on board--people change the subject, talk about political difficulties, money, etc. 

Why do I bring her up?  Mainly it is because I really want an answer.  What do we say to her?  And why is the choice movement not working on this issue? 

Secondarily, I want to point out that Obama did not talk about her either, and I want to know if John thinks we should be pissed-off about this?  I'm disappointed personally, as I always hope that my favored reforms will get pressed, but I'm not pissed off.  Per my comments above, I understand that Obama and other candidates have to pick an issue or two, and I get why he might pick teacher quality over inter-district school choice.

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