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Education struggle continues
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After hearing and seeing decades of philosophizing about the need to protect the traditional public school system’s funds and institutional prerogatives, and looking past the expressed concerns about a Jeffersonian separation of church and state, it is clear the real issue in America is not choice — it is who has it! Those of us with money already have parental choice and have no intention of relinquishing it. If schools fail to properly educate our children, we have at least two choices: We can move to communities where public schools do work or we enroll our children in private schools that work.
Some critics oppose giving poor parents choice because “they won’t be able to make good choices.” Not only is this an inane and paternalistic form of reasoning, it denies the reality that in the places where poor parents are given options many of them are proving to be very effective at making good decisions for their children.
Consider the impact of putting the right kind of parental choice in the hands of families who have little or no power because they control no resources, no levers of influence over the decisions and decision-making process that impacts their children’s education. Consider how this power may change the shape of the future for their children. And consider how the absence of this power may mean their children will be trapped in schools more affluent parents who oppose choice would never tolerate for their own children.
Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, in asserting the relationship between power and education, made this point: A critically important ingredient of educational success for black and white children lies in the power relationships between communities and schools, rather than in the nature of the school population. The nature and distribution of power among schools, families and communities is a crucial piece of the complex puzzle leading toward educational success for all children.
Lightfoot’s power and education thesis can be realized in part by giving low-income and working class the power to choose. Parent choice changes the power equation between those who have historically controlled the decision making process when it comes to decisions about where children will attend schools.
The right kind of parental choice program will give a measure of equity to parents such as these who have long been denied a real voice in the educational affairs of their children. They provide access to educational environments that were inaccessible or did not exist prior to the programs. They provide a way out for children who need an escape hatch, while at the same time putting pressure on the traditional systems, public and private to get better.
Parental-choice programs, when providing a measure of equity and enhanced accessibility, increase the likelihood that many more children will be able to gain the skills needed to be effective participants in a democratic society.
These programs are at their core an empowerment strategy. The ability of poor and working class people to impact the flow and distribution of educational dollars is a critical ingredient in the struggle for fairness and equality for themselves and their children.
Parental choice is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to any serious effort to change schools and school systems in this country.
We must also clearly focus on the impact on our children’s lives of the existence of differential power and access to resources in our society based on race and class. Children who are hungry cannot learn. Children who are abused and neglected are not going to be able to concentrate in school. Children need to see people in their immediate families working in order to understand the value of work and the connection between education and work. Children must see a society where their race will not be an impediment to advancement and respect. Children must interact with adults who have not already reached conclusions about their capabilities because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, or the spelling of their first name. We must walk a delicate line here because although race and class clearly have an impact on our childrenís perceptions and their life chances, we cannot allow these conditions to be an excuse not to educate them.
Given the issues facing our poorest children, the implementation of parental-choice programs will not by themselves change their current educational reality. But the level of change that is needed will not occur without empowering their families to be able to choose the best educational environment for them. Parental choice is a right that cannot continue to be the exclusive purview of those of us who have means. No one ever said this fight would be easy. But it is clear that there is no more important banner to be held high than the one which proclaims that “In America parental choice is widespread unless you are poor.” Those of us who have chosen to be warriors in this battle to change that reality must never tire, never be discouraged no matter how difficult becomes the road we travel. For the sake of our children, the struggle must continue!

Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, is a distinguished professor of education and founder/director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and sits on the board of directors of the Advocates for School Choice.
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