A choice conversation on public education

From redefinED host Doug Tuthill: Today we begin a new feature at redefinED – an ongoing dialogue between myself (that’s me pictured on the right) and John Wilson, who writes the Unleashed blog at Education Week. For the last 25 years, I’ve been one of Wilson’s biggest fans. I worked hard for John when he ran for president of the National Education Association in the late 1980s (we lost), and I’ve always respected the sincerity and dignity with which he conducts himself.  John is a passionate and intelligent advocate for children, teachers and public education – and he’s a gentlemen. So I was thrilled when John accepted my invitation to dialogue with me on redefinED about how best to improve public education. I’m looking forward to learning from John, and I’m hoping our exchanges will inject some more civility into our public discourse.  Our first installment is below.

Doug Tuthill: John, I was pleased to read your endorsement of customization on your blog recently. For readers who missed it, you wrote, “our citizens want choice. Parents want to choose the school that best fits their children. Let’s not stifle this customization, but embrace it.” But I was especially intrigued when you wrote that we need to “stop the fragmentation and welcome charter schools back into the community and the conversation.” The charter school folks I know think they are in the community and think they are part of the conversation. So I was hoping you’d elaborate on what you meant.

John Wilson: Doug, I always start with my strong support for the institution of public schools. I believe public schools are the foundation of our democracy, best prepared to educate the masses, and the most strategic driver of the American economy. Public schools deserve necessary funding to accomplish their mission, and they must be relevant to the needs of that public. For the 21st century, that means customization to assure every child receives an education that prepares them for success. That means a willingness to collaborate with more appropriate providers that serve children but within the public school institution. Creating a hodgepodge of providers outside the public schools causes fragmentation and weakens our public schools. We have tried division; I want us to try addition.

Doug Tuthill: John, I share your belief that public education lies at the foundation of our democracy. Public education is responsible for helping ensure every child, regardless of economic class, ethnicity, disability or race, has an equal opportunity to succeed. This promise is what holds our democracy together, and while I doubt we’ll ever achieve full equality of opportunity, this ideal should always guide our work.

As you point out, customization means providing every child with the learning experiences that best meet his or her needs. And since children are so diverse, we need a diverse selection of learning options from which parents can choose. Fortunately, those additional choices are now emerging through magnet programs, career academies, charter schools, themed neighborhood schools, publicly-funded private school programs, online learning and dual enrollment, among others. And parents are responding. Strong parent demand is driving the growth of all these choices.

I agree this expanding educational pluralism needs to be properly regulated and managed, but I don’t see how parents choosing options such as charter schools, virtual schools or scholarships for low-income children fragments public education. In high school, my younger son attended a magnet school, charter school, community college, virtual school, our zoned neighborhood school and was home schooled. He needed all those options to be successful, and they worked. Today Michael has two college degrees, and he’s a field organizer for President Obama’s re-election campaign. Why should we deny children the learning options they need to succeed? Why can’t we build a public education system in which diversity is a strength?

John Wilson: Doug, we agree on customization, options and parental involvement. I believe this should be within the public schools for oversight, funding and equity. For me, that excludes vouchers or tax credits for private schools unwilling to accept inclusion in the public school network. So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty … funding. I believe in public funding for public good. If all options are under the authority of a public school system or institution, then public funding is appropriate as well as constitutional in all of our states. That is why I call for the current public school system to embrace customization and allow for a new contracting arrangement for providers to serve the unique educational needs of targeted student populations and innovation. For some, this may be redefining what public schools are, but I believe it is more cost efficient for the taxpayer and most importantly, it serves all the children of the community. I fully understand that making these changes will require a lot of community conversation, student-centered decision-making, and a whole lot of attitudinal change.

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BY Special to NextSteps