This piece was originally published at redefinED on January 3, 2019.
Wishing a new look for education choice advocates
By Greg Dolan
This Christmas, I am giving thanks for the recent election of so many supporters of the parental right to educational choice for their children. And if I had one wish to improve something for our movement, it would be for private school leaders to be more involved in policymaking and legislative advocacy for that right.
Public school superintendents, teachers (or teacher union officials), and school board members are the leaders in public debates over district school spending and regulations. In the debates over educational choice, however, think tank staff, professional lobbying groups, and tax-credit-funded scholarship organizations are usually leading the charge. The former group more earnestly represents the local community – adults entrusted with children for seven hours a day and neighbors selflessly serving on school boards. Meanwhile, the latter appear as outsiders – anti-public-school hired guns employed by the rich to create more tax benefits for the rich. These perceptions are unfair, as the former are not so disinterested and the latter’s financial benefit is paltry, but whoever said education choice proponents get a fair shake?
If the face of our movement became superintendents, principals, and teachers at private schools (instead of policy wonks), we would improve not only perceptions but also the details of policy.
There are professional organizations already doing some of this work. In the Catholic schools world, the National Catholic Educational Association is a member-organization for Catholic school professionals. Organizationally, they are outspoken advocates for choice in education. But that does not mean every member is out there speaking up for the cause.
As a concrete example, when an education savings account law with universal eligibility was up for referendum in Arizona, private school teachers were not marching the streets of Phoenix in support a la the #RedForEd episode. Instead, professional education choice advocates from national organizations were the ones defending the law with a failed attempt at “#YesforEd”, and their lawyers were making the most concerted effort to stave off repeal. Where was the fire and fury of thousands of teachers who wanted the chance to change lives? Where were the principals who had made space at their school in anticipation of the new law? (Perhaps some of this did happen in Arizona; I was not a perfect witness to the entire saga. But writ large, these types of things do not happen when proposals are attacked and choice programs are threatened.)
Our professional advocates also do excellent work highlighting the individual stories of families benefiting from educational choice. But there is a limit to the effectiveness as the parents are not the schools – and it is often the schools that are attacked as dubious indoctrination camps (redefinED readers are well aware of the Orlando Sentinel’s zeal for this task).
According to my organization’s analysis of 28 different education choice programs in 20 states, released this month at EdNext and available on our website, about 1-in-5 students in those states are at a Catholic school due to a voucher or tax-credit-funded scholarship. These students are integral parts of their schools, contributing to and benefiting from the community. But only the school staff can tell that story convincingly. Lobbyists, think tank presidents, and media consultants will never be as believable as the staff who see the growth of these students and their impact on their peers. Teachers especially could put a human face on the care and attention they give each student regardless of how their tuition is paid. They are the real frontlines to the education choice fight.
Administrators could also be helpful in dissuading allied legislators from injecting burdensome and distracting provisions into choice legislation. Too often, lawmakers (and some policy wonks) are underprepared to counter the attacks on a choice program, leading them to offer unnecessary amendments to a bill in the hopes of quieting opponents’ objections. If they knew more about the relevant operations of the private schools likely to participate in a new program, they would be able to counter opponents more effectively.
But who can blame our legislative allies? When the lobbyist informing you about education choice one day is giving advice on business tax cuts the next, no wonder the details do not settle in. How much better would it be for school leaders and teachers to equip lawmakers with anecdotes of how a voucher student fit in and contributed to the classroom — or better yet, to that choice student’s learning success? To have that teacher offer heartfelt and passionate testimony at a panel hearing, instead of a numbers-and-figures talk from a paid advocate, would offer true insight into the efficacy of the program and disarm the opposition of its most relied-upon resource, public school teachers.
As the New Year and new legislative sessions approach, I remain thankful for my fellow advocates who do so much good and effective work for education choice. And if I had a Christmas wish, it would be to engage more private school teachers, principals, and administrators to replace us non-teachers as the face of education choice advocacy.