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Teacher in a Strange Land: What Happens When “Choice” Schemes Mature

I am finishing my year as Michigan Teacher of the Year, a whirlwind of heart-warming honors, random opportunities to speak, and learning just how ed-related organizations will try to co-opt The Teacher Voice. I am attending a 3-day music education conference in the summer, a gift from the Michigan School Vocal Music Assn, staying in a college dorm and actually having a blast, learning useful things and singing great literature, when I get a call from my husband. Yikes.

No cell phones or email at the time, so this is one of those scary moments—the central office crew at Alma College sends an emissary to the rehearsal hall, with the message: call your husband immediately. I take a handful of change and find a pay phone, heart pounding.

Nothing’s wrong at home—but my husband took an urgent call from the MI Chamber of Commerce. They need to speak to me. Today.

Turns out the MI Business Roundtable wants to shoot a TV commercial promoting a campaign to fix public education.They want me, the Teacher of the Year, to star in this commercial. The language, of course, is aspirational—our kids are our most precious resource, yada yada—but one of the aspects of the multi-prong campaign is offering families more choice.

They have set up a classroom, in an elementary school about 30 minutes away, where the filming is to take place. Someone will pick me up— this afternoon—and return me to Alma by dinnertime. They have already cleared this with the Department of Ed; one of my (unpaid) jobs as Teacher of the Year is serving as spokesperson for the Department and the Governor.

So I don the most teacher-like outfit I have on hand—your classic denim jumper—and get into the car with the Chamber of Commerce guy. He has to move his Bible and some Christian study materials to the backseat; he’s been listening to their inspirational cassettes on his long drive up. He’s unfailingly polite and appropriately grateful that I interrupted a summer workshop to film a commercial. He’s also really geeked about this campaign.

It’s not about funding, he says. It’s about freedom. Freedom for families to choose the schools that best fit their kids. But, I say–we turned down a ballot initiative to establish vouchers in Michigan back in 1978, two to one. The people have spoken on this issue. Haven’t they?

No, wait, he says. This is about sending your child to the PUBLIC school you want him to attend. Public schools will be open to all Michigan residents. Doesn’t matter which district you live in—your child can attend the public school of your choice.

Whoa. A half-dozen reasons why this is messy pop into my head. What about Detroit families who want their kids to go to Grosse Pointe—how will that work? What about transportation—if you don’t have a car and driver available every morning, how will your kids get to school? What about families only interested in scouting for the best sports teams? How will administrators plan for enough classrooms and teachers? And what about the value of neighborhood schools, serving as a community center?

Destabilizing those communities and significantly impacting their revenue streams doesn’t even occur to me at that point.

Chamber of Commerce Guy has already figured out that I’m probably a Democrat and union member and believer in public education for all, for better and worse. He’s grinning.

Wouldn’t you like to send YOUR kids to the school of your choice, he says. I note that we already have, by moving to the community where I teach. But what if you couldn’t afford to live there, he replies—if this campaign is successful, every child could attend the school where the Teacher of the Year works her magic. He raises his fist, chuckling—“Free the people!”

I was gobsmacked. I don’t remember much about shooting the commercial, except that it was in a first-grade classroom like those in the ‘50s, with a Palmer method letter border and a framed portrait of George Washington. We adjusted the camera angle to get the American flag in the background. I was holding an apple (which I got to keep, since I missed dinner). The script didn’t mention letting kids in poor schools choose wealthy schools, if they can get there, of course. It was more happy talk, children are our future, blahdy blah.

Mercifully, I have searched repeatedly and have been unable to find a copy of the commercial online, although I have a copy on videocassette buried in a box in my garage.

That was thirty years ago, when school choice was a sexy market-driven idea, whose ultimate ramifications were not well understood by parents or, frankly, by advocacy organizations like the Chamber, or by legislators or bureaucrats. People wanted the “freedom” to choose schools—who doesn’t value freedom?

Today, one in four Michigan children attends a school outside his/her district boundaries.

 The spread of choice statewide has accelerated as Michigan’s public-school enrollment has declined 11 percent to 1.38 million in the past decade, prompting competition among some districts.

Michigan law allows districts to open their doors to students from surrounding districts. Most of the state’s 540 public districts participate in some form, though several do not, including Birmingham, Grosse Pointe and Dearborn schools in metro Detroit. Districts can participate with all schools in their intermediate school district, typically their county, or more broadly with any district.

This article illustrates the consequences, especially for small and struggling districts, threatened by the law. It includes a district-by-district comparison of students lost, gained, and attending school outside their district zone. The winners and losers, in other words. Many of the examples are heartbreaking. Schools must compete—or die, literally. And a lot of the factors that draw in parents are unrelated to academic excellence, outstanding programs or a strong staff.

In fact, when asked, lots of adults defend choice for the sake of… choice. The individual trumps the commons. Caveat emptor. And we’re not even talking about vouchers or religious schools siphoning off money intended for public education.

Has any of this resulted in improvement, to any metric of school success—from parent satisfaction to unreliable-to-meaningless standardized test scores? No.

So why are we so stuck on the freedom to choose?


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...