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Home » Chalk Talk – Educating on School Choice

February 14, 2005

On February 2nd The Palm Beach Post in Florida took aim at a school choice information program at Florida State University. The program in the newspaper’s crosshairs is designed to promote the choice policies that are available by law to all residents in Florida. The Post serves Palm Beach County, and that school district as a whole failed to make AYP. The fact that this newspaper is choosing to take issue with this program is a question for another day. The real problem is the continued hypocrisy about an issue that credible newspapers would likely find newsworthy and valuable to its readers.

Education reform has its challenges. One is that most of us did not grow up in a world where schools were evaluated and held accountable for results, where parents had more choices than their neighborhood school, or where there were so many personal and social issues at play in our communities. More than 80 percent of Americans support the notion of allowing parents to send their child to a school other than the one assigned by virtue of their housing choice. The people who most want, and need, such options are parents of color and single parents. So the effort by Governor Jeb Bush in 2000 to create the A+ Plan For Education was right in line with not only what the public wanted to see, but also with what is necessary to provide children with immediate support to receive an education that will help them succeed in life.

The Palm Beach Post thinks this is a right-wing idea, even though the first choice program in the country was created by Annette “Polly” Williams, a former Black Panther member and democratic state legislator from Milwaukee. That was in 1990 and soon after, Cleveland, Ohio followed suit with its version of the Polly plan. Fannie Lewis, another democratic official, this time with the city council, saw inequities, social injustice and failure in public schools for as far as the eye could see. Her concern was that adults were worried about other adults, and few were taking time from their political battles to fight for children. So she teamed up with a Republican governor and brought the Cleveland school choice program to her state – the United States Supreme Court upheld that program in 2002.

During that time the Florida program was enacted. And to its credit, the government of the state of Florida knew that in order to ensure maximum understanding and participation, there needed to be effective informational outreach to the citizens of Florida. The state recognized that people might have questions, would want to see the research and need to know more about how the program works. State governments give out grants to intermediary organizations all the time to promote their policies. Urban Leagues, Boys and Girls Clubs, United Ways, Wildlife Funds, Family Crisis Centers, hospitals, Motor Vehicle Agencies – these are just a few of the thousands of private groups that rely on government assistance to help them advance their efforts – efforts which typically represent government priorities.

This all makes sense to most Americans of course. But it appears that when the issue is one that a newspaper’s biased reporters don’t care for, there is an attempt to discredit such public information as biased itself, or to resort to name-calling – like saying an information stream about school choice is “conservative.”

Is information conservative because it supports school choice? What does that say about Democratic United States Senators like Joe Liebermann or Diane Feinstein? Or is the information The Palm Beach Post dislikes simply trash because a free-market think tank wrote it? My organization, the Center for Education Reform (CER), was also lumped together with other groups as “conservative.” That comes as quite a surprise given the politically diverse staff and funders of CER who work with passion and principle for better educational opportunities for kids – they don’t do it for some ideological crusade.

The fact is, we see what we want. Once upon a time, such a statement did not apply to the media. But increasingly, and sadly, it does apply. The same institutions that first criticized school choice for creaming, now criticize efforts to educate and inform people about their rights, and about the programs set up to benefit them and their families. Educating people about their choices – be it health care, transportation subsidies, child care or education – is something we should all agree is important to improving the livelihood of our fellow citizens.