By Stephanie King
Once again, School Choice Week is upon us, and once again, parents will be subjected to the best PR campaign that wealthy businessmen and our own tax dollars can buy.
Year after year, charter schools play on parents’ emotions with slick ads, using either their hope and dreams for their children as a baited hook or their fears as a cudgel, to convince them to participate in a rigged system that further weakens the idea of education as a public good.
Charter advocates like to pretend that they hold the monopoly on improved outcomes or motivated, involved parents.
But more and more, people are realizing that they got those gains by taking them from neighborhood schools; harnessing achievement and involvement is not creating it.
In addition, the public is becoming more aware that charter schools are able to achieve their results in part by serving fewer economically disadvantaged, special ed, and English language learner students than regular public schools.
Think about the ad campaign for diamonds: a colorless stone that isn’t actually that rare. Yet with artificial scarcity and clever marketing, De Beers has convinced most people that they are an essential symbol of love and devotion, worth diverting a significant portion of household income toward.
So too is the bite that charters take out of public school districts’ budgets, crushed under the costs of this unnecessary expense that marketers have convinced us we need if we are to prove our devotion to our children.
Imagine if all the money that has been spent on ad campaigns, mechanisms of choice (printing all those Great Schools books and setting up Apply Philly Charter), and feasibility studies by Philadelphia School Partnership and Excellent Schools PA, had instead been spent on improving all schools for all children.
PSP’s annual budget is $20 million; they could fix Philadelphia’s asbestos problems in 8 years all by themselves. Instead they’re spending that money on things like a school rating system that’s been shown to favor whiter, wealthier schools, ratings which somehow mysteriously score their own favored “product” higher.
We don’t let restaurants issue their own health inspections, yet we treat Great Schools’ opaque rating process as gospel.
If charter schools are so great, why are there zero of them in Lower Merion and other wealthy school districts? If charters are so innovative, surely those well connected parents would be demanding them. But they aren’t, because a properly funded school that parents haven’t been convinced to flee obviates the need for charters.
Because we fund their operation with our tax dollars, every flyer these charter schools mail out to attract students is a pencil stolen from my child’s hand.
Every billboard or subway poster advertisement is a Chromebook cart taken out of my school’s classrooms. I’m sorry that my school can’t afford a marketing department to entice parents. I’m sorry that I don’t have a grants committee or a partnerships manager to get my school everything that it needs. But mostly, I’m sorry that my tax dollars and the benevolence of billionaires has turned school enrollment into a popularity contest in which our already under-funded public schools can never compete.
The supporters behind school choice should be enough to give us all pause. Do we really believe billionaires including the Waltons, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad actually care about students of color and their well-being, or is the fact that they view schools as their philanthropic playground?
Where are the billionaires printing up signs that proclaim parents’ love for their public schools, or paying to bus us to rallies?
There aren’t, because that wouldn’t simultaneously offer them white-saviorism as a salve on their conscience for their tax avoidance, while also giving them millions of students to serve as data points to make them feel like the smartest person in the room when it comes to education.
Parents don’t want charter schools; they just want good schools. Convincing parents that charter schools were the way to do that was one of the greatest salesmanship jobs of the turn of the 21st-century.
Thankfully, the declining support for charter schools and the backlash against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shows that more and more people are waking up to the realization that “school choice” means choosing winners and losers, when we could instead be directing our energy and resources toward improving real public schools for everyone.
Stephanie King is a public school advocate and prize-winning short story writer from Philadelphia. She is the proud parent of two children attending their neighborhood public school and president of the school’s Friends group. She also serves on the Parent Advisory Committee for Education Voters of Pennsylvania.
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