Real School Choice for America’s Families, the Civil Rights Issue of our Time

By Steve Huntley

July 20, 2022

The covid-19 pandemic left a lot of wreckage in its wake. High on the casualty list is a growing loss of confidence among middle class parents in public schools.

When schools shut down, moms and dads got a peek at zoom classes. They watched with disbelief, then anger as they got a closeup look at how too many public schools promoted an unsettling agenda of political and cultural indoctrination to pupils.

Radical racial ideas distorting American history and sowing division. Nonsense about kids born guilty of oppression because of the color of their skin. Theories about the “fluidity” of gender identity trafficked under the banner of sex education. All that taking priority over math and language instruction.

And that was just the beginning.

When the covid emergency receded, school unions and the school boards in their pockets resisted reopening in-person learning in classrooms. Chicago parents saw the city’s teachers union go on strike for five days to try to keep from returning to the classroom.

Union defiance to in-person learning came even as evidence mounted that computer screen classes knee-capped learning in pupils. Reading and math scores fell across the board, but especially plummeted for low-income kids.

Then there was nonsense like the far-left San Francisco school board that, rather than open classrooms, worried about schools being named for famous heroes of history like Abraham Lincoln.

When parents took their understandable anger, sometimes boisterously expressed, to school board meetings, they found themselves in the government crosshairs.

The National School Boards Association complained to Washington that the parents’ behavior “could be the equivalent of a form of domestic terrorism.”  Attorney General Merrick Garland bought it hook, line and sinker. Buttressing the radical notion that concerned parents could be likened to “domestic terrorism,” Attorney General Garland issued a memo taking about “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” at school board meetings. Outrage in middle America and Congress forced him to back down.

But the message had been delivered loudly and unmistakably:  The thoughts and voices of mothers and fathers concerned about the education of their children were not welcome in America’s government schools.

If the school board association’s message wasn’t clear enough, others in the government school complex reenforced it. The head of one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted her endorsement of a Washington Post op-ed asserting, “Parents claim they have a right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat seeking to return to the state’s gubernatorial mansion, proclaimed, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He subsequently lost his bid for a second term.

Surveying the wreckage of their assumptions about public schools, parents begin wondering about options for the most precious souls in their lives.

The school choice movement, which had been slowly building over the years, blossomed in more minds as an alternative to what parents had discovered about public education in the 21st century.

This indicated a shakeup in parents’ attitudes. School choice had often floundered among middle class and suburban voters because they look for good schools for their kids, often move to be near those schools, assume they are getting the education they paid taxes for and feared that choice legislation would drain funds from their schools.

Now their eyes have been opened by a harsh dose of reality.

Polling reflects growing interest in education alternatives. One survey found that support for school choice had jumped to 72 percent among registered voters. That support was widespread. The canvassing, by RealClearOpinion Research, reported that 77 percent of Hispanics and 70 percent of African Americans backed school choice. A poll in Democrat Illinois showed backing for school choice legislation rising to 61 percent from 54 percent in just a little over half a year.

Those sentiments are starting to show up at the polls. Like Virginia voters rejecting anti-parent McAuliffe. San Francisco held a recall election and ousted three members of the board pushing to rename schools instead of reopening them.

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds pushed a school choice scholarship program through the state senate only to see it die in the house — even though the GOP is in the majority there too.

The school administration-union-woke complex is overwhelmingly in bed with Democrats but, as Iowa showed, some Republicans have been seduced by its campaign funds as well.

Reynolds didn’t give up the fight. She backed choice candidates in the Iowa Republican primary this spring. Four challengers beat anti-choice legislators. Next up is to get them elected to the Iowa house in November to revive her scholarship program.

Other encouraging developments followed. Arizona enacted legislation broadening funding for school choice to all students in the state. Choice legislation often targets low income, disadvantaged and minority kids, understandably so since they often are victimized by poor government schools.

Arizona’s new legislation opens up $6,500 scholarships to all of the more than one million kindergarten-through-high-school students in the state to use for private schools or home schooling.

Last year, choice advocates in the Illinois legislature beat back an attempt by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to cut by nearly half the tax credit for donations to the Invest in Kids program that helps low-income kids, 49 percent of them minorities, escape low-performing public schools. To Pritzker, donating money to help children get a better education is nothing more than another “tax loophole.”

Another success for choice came last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if a state offers funding to private schools, it can’t deny that money to a religious school, as Maine had done. “That is discrimination against religion,” the court ruled.

While that court ruling was certainly welcome, school choice will advance only with parents making it a priority at the polls. The school unions are powerful and rich. They pour money and their influence into political races at all levels of government. Parents and other voters worried about toxic elements in schooling and the national culture must turn out at the polls to elect pro-choice lawmakers.

Parents naturally revere teachers. And many good teachers are in unions.

But no parent should ever think the educational welfare of their children is upper most in the minds of the union leaders. They care only about the pay, hours and benefits of teachers and increasing their political power.

No matter how poorly schools perform, the unions come to the bargaining table demanding more money.

And poor is the only word to describe school results in so many schools. The National Assessment of Educational Progress tracks academic trends and its survey showed that “student progress declined or was stalled even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Beverly Perdue, chairwoman of the organization’s governing board.

Even before the pandemic, only a third to 40 percent of Chicago third graders met math and English standards. And only a little more than a third of Illinois 11th graders met or exceeded the language and math standards in the college-entrance SAT exam. Those results were even lower after covid.

And that doesn’t get to the emotional and psychological stress from the pandemic and being locked out of school.

A survey of 362 school counselors by the New York Times found many students, in the paper’s words, “frozen, socially and emotionally, at the age they were when the pandemic started.” The result was more anxiety and depression among students, said 94 percent of those surveyed. The paper quoted a Chicago high school counselor, Jennifer Fine, as saying, “Developmentally, our students have skipped over crucial years of social and emotional development.”

In a better world, the Chicago school board — which should place the needs of kids first, last and always on its agenda — would open the next contract negotiations with CTU with an offer to raise salaries by X-amount if reading and math scores increase by, say, 10 percent.

If that were to ever happen, watch for sputtering temper tantrums, rage, apoplexy and fury from union chieftains.

Imagine that, linking pay to performance.

But performance is what parents want — and their children deserve.

Public schools played a vital, admirable role in educating America’s young through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. They taught kids to read and write, helped them understand the glorious fundamentals of the American experiment in self-government, and prepared them to go on to jobs or college.

That, unfortunately, is history.

Now’s the time to think about the future. Let taxpayer dollars follow children, not school districts. Teacher unions complain that would take resources from public schools. Yes, but why should taxpayer money to educate a student stay with the government school after she’s turned to a private school for a better future?

Until recently, government funding for school choice has mainly focused on charter schools for the poor and minorities and on magnet and merit-admission facilities to keep affluent families in cities.

The failures of public education, so graphically exposed during the panic, and the woke politics of the last few years demonstrate that it’s time to expand educational choice opportunity to all students. The new Arizona scholarship program shows the way forward.

And let’s not forget that school choice offers an opportunity to improve government schools. Competition could force them to get better, unless compromised school boards continue to prioritize unions over kids.

The education of America’s young is too important to be controlled by self-serving unions and out-of-touch bureaucrats. It should be in the hands of parents.

For America’s children, school choice is shaping up to be the civil rights issue of the 21 century.

 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Huntley, a retired Chicago journalist now living in Austin, Texas, has contributed other pieces to johnkassnews, most recently his essay on Chicago’s rising violent crime and Orwellian Newspeak.

For almost three decades Huntley spent most of his career in Chicago journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was a feature writer, metro reporter, night city editor, metropolitan editor, editorial page editor and a columnist for the opinion pages.

Before that Mr. Huntley was a reporter and editor with United Press International (UPI) in the South and Chicago, and Chicago bureau chief and a senior editor in Washington with U.S. News & World Report.

He is also the author of the award-winning biography: Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America by Truman K. Gibson Jr. with Steve Huntley.

It is an honor and privilege to have Mr. Huntley, who spent decades in the news business in Chicago, now writing pieces here at johnkassnews.com.

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JK