An open letter to Condoleezza Rice

Dear Dr. Rice,

I read that you recently told a TV interviewer, “Anybody who isn’t in favor of school choice, anybody who isn’t in favor of educational reform, anybody who defends the status quo in the educational system, that’s racist to me.”

I don’t support the status quo. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does. We all want schools to get better, although many of us disagree about how to make that happen.

But I don’t favor school choice as a tactic for improving education. And I very much am not in favor of the “education reform” agenda that promotes charter schools and private-school vouchers as an alternative to public schools. I haven’t seen any evidence that approach is working.

I don’t think that makes me or my views racist. Let me try to explain.

First, the idea that school choice will help “poor black kids trapped in failing neighborhood schools,” as you put it, may sound good, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the growth of charter schools has created a two-tiered system that favors children with engaged and savvy parents.

As Iris C. Rotberg wrote in the Phi Delta Kappan, numerous studies show school choice has increased segregation of students by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools are getting more separate and less equal. School choice is making this worse.

There are charter schools that appear to be highly effective, and no doubt we could find students who have thrived in charters after struggling in their neighborhood schools. But overall, the performance of charter schools is highly mixed and often no better than that of neighborhood schools.

In Indiana, where I live, 72 percent of high-poverty charter schools got a D or F in the state’s school-grading system last year, compared to 35 percent of high-poverty traditional public schools. That doesn’t mean charter schools are bad. But it should cast doubt about whether they are the answer.

As former Maryland Superintendent of Schools David Hornbeck points out, charter schools are cutting into funding for traditional public schools, reducing opportunities for some children even if they create opportunities for others. And school choice is fragmenting communities, creating fault lines among parents and advocates who ought to be working to make all our public schools better.

The same is true of vouchers that let parents choose to send their children to religious schools or other private schools at taxpayer expense. There, too, it’s often poor children and children of color who are being left behind. In Indiana’s expansive and generous voucher program, three of five voucher recipients are white, even though most voucher participants are in urban areas. Many are not poor.

It shouldn’t be surprising that school choice isn’t helping minority students. A system based on competition creates winners and losers. It encourages us to do what’s best for our own – and disregard other people’s children. The losers are likely to be the families who start from the weakest position.

When it comes to education, our values and political positions often reflect our personal experiences. That’s certainly true for me.

At the school that my children attended, nine of 10 students now qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In recent years, I have watched college-educated parents from the neighborhood send their children to a charter school or transfer them to public schools with fewer poor or minority kids.

School choice has increased the isolation of poor children in the neighborhood school, which is at risk of state takeover because of low test scores.

I don’t like what has happened, but I would never suggest that it’s racist for parents to send their children to charter schools or private schools.

And this brings me back to my initial point. Education policy is complex and contentious, and it’s OK that we disagree. But if we want what’s best for children, we should start by assuming that those with different beliefs are acting in good faith.

Especially given the news that Jeb Bush has tapped you to chair his Foundation for Excellence in Education, I hope you’ll reconsider what you said.

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3 thoughts on “An open letter to Condoleezza Rice

  1. I’ve begun to see school choice as another step in the slow process of redistributing wealth upwards. Even though reformers tout choice as way to remedy inequality, it’s really just every man for himself. Those with means prosper, and the poor are left behind.

    The ironic thing is that the only reliable predictor of a “failing” school is the number of students who are poor, the very factor that choice increases. Choice creates failing schools.

    Public education has always played an important (and imperfect) role in leveling the social playing field. How can we decrease inequality by dismantling it?

    Reformers are not improving public education; they are abandoning it.

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