Sixth in a multi-part series
In our May 21 issue, the MSR began a series of stories looking into an organization called Better Ed that has launched a now-two-year-old campaign to highlight the shortcomings of public schools, especially those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and promote “school choice” as a solution.
We have previously published extended interviews with Better Ed’s president, Devin Foley, about the organization, its goals and purpose, and their future plans, and in recent weeks we have published responses from the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools.
As we continue exploring the pros and cons of school choice and related educational issues, we have asked both Mr. Foley (DF) and Lynn Nordgren (LN), president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, to address specific questions that have come up in previous stories.
This week we provide their responses to two of these questions; responses to two more questions will run in next week’s issue. In order to guarantee that each responded to exactly the same questions and wording, we submitted our questions simultaneously to each by email. Neither was allowed to see the other’s responses.
Are school vouchers beneficial to Black families and students?
DF: In Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, only 25 percent or less of Black students are reading at grade level. This poor performance has been happening for over 15 years. Every few years, an administration announces a new plan that will fix everything, and yet the same poor results continue despite spending $21,000 per student.
At some point, we must recognize that the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools lack the ability to help Black students achieve. This uncomfortable truth becomes more apparent when we consider the successes of both charter and private schools such as Ascension, Global Academy, Christo Rey, Hiawatha Academies, Minneapolis Academy, and others to help Black and other minority students meet and even exceed state averages for reading and math.
The schools that are succeeding have the freedom to tailor their educational approaches to the needs of their minority students. In doing so, they can succeed. By implementing universal school choice, Black parents would have the freedom to find the right schools for their children. If they are concerned about systemic racism in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, then why be forced to stay in those schools? Wouldn’t it be better to be able to take the $21,000 and find a school that values Black students?
LN: After decades of vouchers waxing and waning in popularity, evaluations show there is little to no evidence that school vouchers have been academically or socially beneficial to Black families and students. Vouchers remain an elitist privatization strategy used to divert public monies to private schools — 90 percent of which are religious institutions.
Vouchers have become a way to circumvent the separation of church and state in order to subsidize private and religious schools. More than $65 million has been spent annually to promote vouchers. Just imagine what could be done with that kind of money in our traditional system: more resources, smaller class sizes, up-to-date technology, in-depth support for students in need.
Often, for private schools accepting vouchers, admission is select and schools may choose which students they want and which they do not. The number of available seats is usually very limited, which does not allow for a free and accessible education for all. There is very little equity in the use of vouchers, yet that is the very foundation that our free public education system was built upon.
In addition, the voucher does not typically cover the full cost of attending a private school, which leaves the student’s family struggling to pay the difference. The attrition rate is very high for those using vouchers. In the end, vouchers and privatization of our schools turn education into a consumer choice instead of a public right. Affordability, accessibility and accountability have not been strong foundational elements of the implementation of vouchers (or charters) and have, instead, encouraged racial, ethnic, and religious stratification.
Are charter schools a good option for Black families and students?
DF: It’s important to note that the worldview of educators and administrators will shape the education they offer. If that worldview is defective, then the education provided will also be defective.
Arguably, the importance of charter schools is that they better allow for different worldviews and education philosophies to flourish. The successes of charter schools such as Hiawatha, Minneapolis Academy, Global and many others allow us to see that worldview, curriculum, and educational approaches matter. Those schools are getting great results for their Black and minority students while Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts have only 25 percent of their Black students reading at grade level while spending $21,000 per student.
LN: There is no indication that charters are a good option for Black families. While a few select segregated charters have been successful, after 20 plus years of a charter school movement, the research shows only 17 percent of charters actually do the same as or better than public schools.
The rest of charter results show they perform worse than public schools — a fact often seen by public school teachers who must catch up students who are returning from charters. The “Choice is Yours” option for Minneapolis students has had minor success for some Black students, but many return to Minneapolis after a period of time for a wide variety of reasons.
Charters that fare better have what traditional public schools would like — smaller schools, small class sizes, engaged parents, fewer top-down mandates, collaboration time, adequate prep time for the next day’s work with students, and appropriate resources. It is a formula that works whether for charter or for traditional public schools.
Charters also do not fare better when it comes to what is available to students. Usually, there are many more extracurricular and academic options within the traditional public school system.
Finally, charters divert critical funding to traditional public schools that could be used to implement some of the researched best practices like smaller class sizes.
Next week: Foley and Nordgren respond to questions on children with special needs and homeschooling.
Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more in the series on Better Ed:
First installment: Public schools foe Better Ed campaigns for school choice
Second installment: Better Ed: People want out of public schools
Fourth installment: MPS: School choice will not close achievement gap
Fifth installment: Vouchers offer no solution to achievement gaps