With the recent appointment and confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, the movement for educational choice has plenty of reasons for optimism.
Throughout the nomination process, opponents of DeVos ridiculed the school-choice movement for caring little about quality, equality, and opportunity, ignoring that these are the precise drivers of advocates for school choice.
Given the abounding confusion and misrepresentation, I was reminded of a wonderful talk given by Professor Howard Fuller at the American Enterprise Institute, in which he clearly outlines four key priorities for education reform in America.
“Education is about liberation,” Fuller argues (channeling Paolo Feire). “It’s about freedom. So if people have freedom, but the freedom is to choose from mediocrity, then it’s the illusion of freedom.”
The four priorities he outlines are highlighted below (summaries are my own loose paraphrase; excerpts are direct quotes from Fuller):
1. Educational choice: Parents and children of all incomes need choice.
It’s very important that low-income and working class people in this country have choice. I think that is a critical thing. I know that you all don’t want to have an America where only those of us with money have the ability to choose the best educational environment for our children…This idea of parent choice is crucial.
2. Quality of schools: We need good choices and schools with a proper understanding of what education is actually about.
If people are going to have choice — and choice is about freedom — then you want to make sure that the choices are quality. You want to make sure that when people choose, they have great schools to choose from. Because I do believe that education is about liberation. It’s about freedom.
…The fight for quality has to be a critical part of ed reform. But at the same time, it’s not just about high test scores. We want to develop kids who can engage in the practice of freedom. Paolo Freire said that it’s not just about preparing young people to engage in what’s currently there and conform to it. It’s giving them the skills that they need so they can engage in the practice of freedom – the transformation of their world.
3. Bottom-up leadership: The “liberators” need to come from among the liberated.
I think it has to become clear that if education is about liberation…the people who are being liberated have to be a critical part of their own liberation… What we’ve got to figure it is how do we do not just diversity, but how do we do power? When does the transfer take place?
When are we going to reach the point where we’re very clear that if this is going to work long term, somehow we’ve got to change the narrative and make sure that the people we’re trying to liberate are critical definers of what they need to be liberated.
4. Recognition of the social reality: Race still matters. Class still matters.
People talk about what we’ve got to do to improve schools, but we’ve also got to talk about what’s happening to our kids before they ever get to us. We must talk about the fact that race matters in America and class matters…You know that some of these kids ought to get a medal just for showing up at school, given everything that they’re going through…on a day to day basis. It’s got to be clear to you all that if you’re hungry, it’s hard to come to school and learn. If you’ve been abused and neglected, it’s hard to come to school every day.
In the work that lies ahead, the school-choice movement would do well to keep these concerns at the forefront of our thinking, reminding skeptics and opponents of the importance of each along the way.