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The Way Out of the Choice Conundrum: Reframe the Debate to Focus on Compassion

July 30, 2017

Last week the New Republic staff writer Graham Vyse posted an article describing the box the Democratic party is in because they have offered support for “school choice” and charter schools, concepts now embraced, expropriated and expanded upon by Betsy DeVos. And as Vyse reports, the NAACP’s recent vote to oppose any expansion of charter schools makes matters even more complicated.

The reasons for the NAACP’s opposition are best spelled out in quotes from Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at California State University, that are interspersed throughout the article:

“I think the civil rights community standing up to that narrative—that charter schools equal civil rights—has now become problematic for the people making that argument,” said…Mr. Heilig… an NAACP delegate. “I think what’s happening is there’s really an awakening in communities that school choice isn’t as promised—that when charter schools and private schools are able to make decisions about kids without any recourse for families, communities are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

“…It’s a real bump in the road for people who believe they’re progressive because they’ve found themselves on the same team as Donald Trump. I think they have to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a Teach for America person, I’m all for charter schools, I’m about social justice and Black Lives Matter, but why I am on the same side as Donald Trump when it comes to charter schools and ‘school choice’?”

“The debate is whether schools that are private schools or privately managed like charter schools should have the power in the conversations about whether students can enroll and whether students can stay. We want to make sure that parents and families can do the choosing and the public interest is protected.”

The article concludes with Dr. Heilig’s perspective on how the issue of public schools should be addressed in the coming years. In Dr. Heilig’s view

…the thrust of the next ten years of education reform must be democratically controlled, community-based reform. Democratically controlled ‘school choice’ is a civil right issue. Privatizing our education system and profiting from public dollars is not.”

From my perspective reframing the debate between democratically controlled schools and privatized schools is insufficiently narrow. The Democratic Party needs to broaden the argument to one of being compassionate toward each other… to showing that in a democratic culture we care deeply about each other and want to use our government to ensure that the rules of the marketplace are established in a fashion that provides every child born in our country or any child who migrates here with an opportunity to earn enough to raise a family without fear. Indeed, if we want to Make America Great Again we need to Make America GOOD again… and that is impossible if we expect the “market” to solve every problem that faces children raised in poverty or those seeking shelter from war ravaged nations.

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