Will 2018 be another year filled with debates about the privatization of public education? Perhaps. One can safely say that vouchers and their many iterations dominated much of the education policy conversation in 2017. Whether it was reporting on the nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, or the latest research findings citing the lackluster academic performance of students who receive vouchers to attend private schools, it was hard to open a newspaper or browse the front pages without seeing some mention of the words “school choice.”
School choice is precisely what vouchers represent: Private schools are choosing which students they want to educate. In that sense, school choice is an accurate shorthand for private school voucher policies versus a phrase like “parental choice,” which implies that parents have the power to make an educational choice. The way voucher proponents have successfully spun phrases like “school choice” is no accident: They have been waging a successful messaging campaign that frames public schools as failing and private schools as the only way to fix lagging student achievement. These messages—along with ideas about how vouchers “empower parents,” allow children to “escape failing schools,” and force public schools to “compete”—continue to resonate with the public and Capitol Hill. Now, the challenge for public education advocates is determining how to best respond to this war of words.
Some polling has begun to shed light on how we can reframe the voucher debate and get some more wins for our side. These organizations independently found that few Americans are concerned by issues near and dear to many of the civil rights and education groups fighting the good fight: discrimination of students in private school voucher programs; poor management of private schools and public dollars; and little transparency about test scores, admission criteria, and graduation rates. Instead, these organizations have concluded that emphasizing fiscal and pro-public school arguments are a far better approach. Specifically, they recommend the following:
- Emphasize that we cannot afford to fund two different education systems—public and private—on the taxpayer’s dime.
- Describe how private school voucher programs are expensive, do not reduce operating costs for public schools, and can lead to multimillion-dollar deficits and tax increases.
- Discuss how money for voucher programs can be better spent on popular educational programming and practices like reducing class sizes, enhancing career and technical education offerings, increasing opportunities for parental engagement, providing a more well-rounded curriculum, and offering wrap-around supports.
- Share how private school voucher programs don’t lead to improvements in public schools, which serve 90 percent of all children regardless of ability or income.
These are all excellent talking points; however, we know that school principals may want or need additional concise arguments on the subject of vouchers. The National Coalition for Public Education—a coalition of more than 60 national education, civil rights, disability, religious, and civil liberties organizations—is ready to help. Its website, www.novouchers.org, has dozens of easily digestible one-page fact sheets that describe why vouchers don’t work for rural students and detail how private schools underserve low-income youth and fail kids with disabilities, plus much more. The group also posts important articles about school voucher policy at the state and federal levels, and offers quick summaries of key federal studies. Even a hurried browse through the website can leave you feeling prepared to discuss the pitfalls of school voucher policy in 2018. And, if not, NASSP has many great resources that you can check out as well.
At a broader level, we need to change our mentality from fighting to defend public schools and fighting against vouchers to championing public schools and the 50 million kids they serve. NASSP is working with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and other national stakeholder groups on a campaign called #LovePublicEducation, which is focused on lifting up the voice of public school students, teachers, administrators, and parents, and asking communities to fully embrace their public school system. It’s not a campaign specifically opposing vouchers, but it shows that broad support for public education is an important message to deliver as we fight at the federal and state levels to keep public dollars in public schools.
We hope your district and state considers introducing the #LovePublicEducation resolution this month, and that you think about participating in our yearlong effort to highlight the critical role that public schools play as the bedrock of our civic society. After all, it’s up to public schools to prepare students to be successful, contributing members of their local, national, and global communities.
Sasha Pudelski is assistant director of policy and advocacy for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.