The Last Word September 2013

Children in this country have the right to a free public education. On that there is, thankfully, broad agreement. The public school system is a quintessentially American institution, open to everyone. It also is a vital underpinning to our democracy. Jefferson and others at the founding of the nation spoke about the need for the citizenry to be educated in order for our form of government to succeed. Public schools were created in response to this charge.

Much has changed in the intervening years, of course. Our society is far more complex and transient, and the means of disseminating education far more sophisticated than anyone in the 18th or 19th century ever could have imagined. The face of public education has changed dramatically as a result.

In celebrating these improvements, we would be well advised to hold on to at least one fundamental principle -- namely, that schools should exist in every community. We might wish this, too, were an idea about which there could be little argument, but evidence to the contrary easily can be found.

Consider for a moment the perennial debate over school choice. Education critics argue that some public schools are failing, and that children should not be trapped in them. School choice advocates tend to be passionate and committed, expressing an urgent need for change and citing poorly performing public schools as a compelling reason to provide new taxpayer-funded education alternatives.

This argument belies the reality that many public schools have enacted a broad range of choice options within their districts and have raised student achievement to unprecedented levels. Still, these successes are not universal, and some schools continue to struggle. That is not simply unfortunate: It is not acceptable. No child should be subjected to an inadequate education. Yet, many school choice advocates do not seem to be troubled at all that their own plans fail to remedy the very ailment they have diagnosed.

These debates have played out in state legislatures across the country. My own experience largely was shaped in Pennsylvania, where I lobbied for and served as executive director of the state school boards association for more than three decades. School choice has been debated there frequently and vigorously. I have had many encounters with its advocates; their arguments are well-known and, frankly, time-worn. That was the case at a state Senate hearing on tuition vouchers when I testified several years ago. Predictably, lawmakers and witnesses alike repeatedly cited certain underperforming urban schools as the primary basis for promoting their voucher proposal.

My testimony challenged both the constitutionality and efficacy of vouchers, and I emphasized that the plan would divert money from already underfunded schools. We also noted that the proposed legislation did not authorize a voucher for every student in underperforming schools, in any event. So we asked: “What would happen if all eligible students applied?” Silence, and then the bill’s sponsor said, “We don’t expect that to occur.”

What a telling comment. Even advocates were not confident their plan would succeed. Indeed, this clearly was little more than a redirection of funds from schools that badly needed more financial support to an experiment that would, potentially, serve only a few. Disinvestment is hardly a turnaround strategy.

The comment by that legislator also ignored the reality that most students prefer to go to school near their homes and friends. It’s where they live. Education is not simply a commodity. More importantly, public schools are a vital part of every community and need to be supported.

We have much to be proud of in public education, but we must acknowledge there are places that are not educating students well. If we believe every student can learn, we then must believe every school can succeed. We should not rest until all children in America have access to great public schools where they live. No exceptions, no excuses.

Thomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA.