I heard a commercial on my car radio from an over-eager pitch man on the way back from working out on a mild summer morning in early June: “Parents! Don’t delay! Enroll your student at Freedom Preparatory Academy by July 1st, and you’ll receive a $50 Visa gift card and be entered into a drawing to win a FREE Chromebook. You have many choices where you send your child to school. Experience the freedom of Freedom Preparatory Academy.” I quickly snapped off the radio. These charter school advertisements are so abundant that you’d think there was another presidential election going on. Instead, after two years of Betsy DeVos running a U.S. Department of Education that greatly incentivized states to create more charter schools, and with a Republican supermajority in our state legislature, charter schools have been popping up everywhere.
President Trump sold it well. I have to give him credit for that, at least. He fed the country false information about how we should have more choices of where to send our children to school, and that the competition created by charter schools will improve the education system for everyone. “It’s like a business,” he said. “It’s good for the consumer when businesses compete with each other, and it’s good for students when schools do the same.”
On the surface this sounds like a logical argument. Teachers tried to be the voice of reason and educate the public about why this didn’t make sense and why the expansion of charter schools is harmful to students. Well, many of us tried, anyway. Unfortunately, even on this crucial issue, teachers did not present a united voice. Too many voted against our students’ interests and voted for political candidates with an “R” next to their names. It was clear what would happen to the country’s public education system under Republican control. They’ve been busting teachers’ unions and pushing “school choice” initiatives for decades.
Those of us who tried to raise awareness about the dangers of “school choice” expansion pointed out that these initiatives steal money from an already underfunded public school system. We attempted to explain that schools can’t be run like businesses because, quite simply, they’re NOT businesses; they’re a bureaucracy. A business has the ability to choose from the finest of materials to make their products. Public schools take everyone. Competition among businesses drives down prices and benefits the consumer. Competition among schools lessens the quality of education because schools fight for the same raw materials--students and teachers. The good teachers and the good students become spread out across several schools. With a lower enrollment at each school, the schools themselves are more costly to operate. It used to be that charter schools were regulated, but now, under the new Trump administration, businesses are allowed to run publicly-funded schools with no expectation that they actually perform on the same level as other schools across the state.
This is exactly what happened in Michigan before Betsy DeVos took responsibility of the nation’s public school system. The warning signs for the downfall of the American education system were there. The New York Times ran several stories about this, like “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Amiss” and “The Risk with Betsy DeVos,” but people blew them off as being from a biased liberal media.
So here I am, living in the new normal in 2018: where schools are so desperate for students that they’re offering gift cards to get parents to enroll their children there, where states accepted federal money to pass anti-union legislation and made teachers’ unions a relic of the past, and where “school choice” has led to an uneven playing field that clearly benefits the wealthy. If only teachers across the country had inspired their local communities to contact their U.S. senators and implored them to vote against Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education. A website was even created for this: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-your-senator-to-vote-no-for-betsy-devos. Oh well. It’s time for me to put on my Freedom Prep Academy polo, and go to work.