Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered an excellent speech on school choice last week at Harvard University. The speech — applauded by school choice advocates but largely ignored by the press –is noteworthy because it took on a number of themes that most school choice proponents ignore.
For example DeVos correctly noted how opponents of school choice have succeeded in conflating the case for school choice into a false binary argument; you are either for the public schools or against them. Since school choice enables children to attend private schools, school choice – according to public school advocates – is anti-public school.
This is faulty thinking, for many reasons and the Secretary explained why.
Defenders of the “system” would have you believe it means vouchers, right? And charter schools. They say it means private schools, or maybe even religious schools. It means for-profit schools. They say it means taking money from public schools — no accountability, no standards, the wild west, the market run amuck.
Well, I’ve got to give it to them; they’ve done a mighty fine job setting the scene for that house of horrors in the press.
They did so by trying to paint an indelible line, forcing a false dichotomy: if you support giving parents any option—any say—you must therefore be diametrically opposed to public schools, public school teachers and public school students.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth!
Think about food. Yes, food. That’s probably easy for many of you right now…it is just about dinner time.
Like education, we all need food to grow and thrive. But we don’t all want or need the exact same thing at the exact same time. What tastes good to me may not taste good to you. What’s working for me right now might not work a few years from now.
Accordingly, we choose how to best get the food that meets our unique needs.
Think about how you eat. You could visit a grocery store, or a convenience store, or a farmer’s market to buy food and cook at home. Or you could visit a restaurant. Maybe a sit-down place, maybe a fast food joint, maybe a hybrid that combines the best of both.
Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customer’s needs.
Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?
No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.
Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity—being for choice—is not being against anything.
I’m not for or against one type, one brand or one breed of school choice. I’m not for any type of school over another.
But the definitions we have traditionally worked from have become tools that divide us. Isn’t “the public” made up of students and parents? Isn’t “public money” really their money—the taxpayer’s money?
And doesn’t every school aim to serve the public good? A school that prepares its students to lead successful lives is a benefit to all of us. The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That’s why we should fight less about the word that comes before “school.”
I suspect all of you here at Harvard, a private school, will take your education and contribute to the public good.
When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. You compared options, and made an informed decision.
No one seems to criticize that choice. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary, middle, or high school?
Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means.
We should be for students—all students. And that’s why I’m for parents having access to the learning environment that’s the right fit for their child. I believe in students, and I trust parents.
So, with that understanding of “choice,” what does the future look like?
I am not a creature of Washington, so I am not afraid to say this: we do…not…know what the future of school choice looks like! And that’s not only something with which I am okay, it is something I celebrate and embrace.
The future of choice should be whatever parents want for their children. The future of choice relies upon parents being empowered to make choices for their children.
What this looks like for one family in Wyoming will be different from what an Indiana family decides. In fact, what choice looks like for one child may be different than what it looks like for his or her own sibling!
States are different, families are dynamic and children are unique. Each should be free to pursue different avenues that lead each child to his or her fullest future.