Free to Choose? Eh, Not So Much: Notes from Little Rock School Choice Forum

I'm gonna make sure mine are educated if you don't.
Quote from mother at Little Rock school choice forum, October 25, 2011

Yesterday I told you to go to that Parental Choice in Public Schools town hall event at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Did you manage to make it? Yeah? Really? Well, that’s interesting because I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE.

I was there, though, along with 300 or so other people, and oh what a time it was. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Cynthia Howell contributes a fine write-up (subscription required, suckers), characterizing the debate on stage as “spirited.” She might have also called it “contentious.” Because if you were under the impression that this was going to be a happy smiley “GO SCHOOL CHOICE” event, you were wrong.

The debate largely came down to disputes between some nerdy, wonkish education reform advocates (including hands-on educators like Scott Shirey, head of the KIPP Delta School program, and John Bacon, CEO of the eSTEM charter school in Little Rock) versus unapologetic demagoguery from Little Rock Schools Superintendent Morris Holmes and state Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock).

And so Holmes questioned the very premise of the event, suggesting it was intended to “demonize” public schools, as if he hadn’t, you know, been invited to sit right there and participate in the forum. Holmes was in a fighting mood, arguing that “this is about a war to make all schools good for kids. The war is about how we do it.”

Walker, with characteristic  nuance, accused school choice advocates of attempting “to end public education” and to establish “a new segregration.” The choice crowd, as is their nerdish wont, responded with statistics and data (Shirey boasted that his buses travel 800 miles across east Arkansas every day! 800 miles!).

Howell’s report in the ADG doesn’t cover the audience question session that followed (I’m betting she had to dart out to meet deadline), which is a shame, because that was where the more interesting dynamics arose.

A contingent of teachers representing the Little Rock teachers’ union, on hand to cheer Holmes’s every utterance, posed some sharp questions; another young woman expressed her dissatisfaction that the panel included no strong voice representing parents.

Other attendees offered more personal testimony. An African-American mother of two took to the microphone. “You mentioned war. Let me tell you about war,” she said. “I’ve been in a war with the Little Rock public school system.”

She told of how she had struggled to get her daughter into better schools, placing her name on three separate waiting lists, and encountering a bureaucratic wall of resistance at every turn. She finally surrendered, removing her daughter from the system and home-schooling her.

“We should have choices,” she concluded. “I’m gonna make sure mine are educated if you don’t.”

It was an impassioned plea, and Holmes’s response was completely useless: “You can join me in the war and we can war together.” Again with the war-mongering! So the working mother poured out her heart, and the bureaucrat responded with empty rhetoric.

As the forum neared its end, a public school teacher with 45 years of service took to the microphone to note that “‘Choice’ has a synonym and that is ‘escape.’” Her point was that school choice advocates seemed to be developing strategies for families to escape from poor schools, rather than to dig in and fix the problems.

Well, maybe. But even so, what so wrong with that? Our culture generally celebrates the concept of “escape,” whether it be from New York or from Alcatraz or to Witch Mountain. Or from a lousy school.

And anyway, what the hell’s so great about imprisonment?

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3 thoughts on “Free to Choose? Eh, Not So Much: Notes from Little Rock School Choice Forum

  • October 26, 2011 at 5:29 pm
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    I think the verdict is out on charter schools. They have led some more affluent families to put their children back into these (semi)-public schools instead of putting them in private schools. I suspect that public school students who are from poor families, but are still bright, would also have a better likelihood of getting in a charter school than their poor but less scholastic peers.

    My reasoning is that it takes parental involvement for a child to get into a charter school. A parent has to care enough to look into it. And students who do well in school typically have involved parents. A lot of those left in failing schools would be students whose parents don’t give a rip about their education. Although there would still be sad situations like the mother of two you mentioned.

    I think caliber of student, which is largely a result of parental involvement, makes more of a difference in how a school performs overall than caliber of teacher. What students a teacher has to work with makes a difference. And on the topic of parents, it probably would have been good to have a voice for them on the panel. But of course I’m sure the parent would have been pointing the finger at everyone except their fellow parents. Another problem is the culture of “there’s nothing wrong with my kid” where parents don’t take suggestions to put their kids in certain classes and programs tailored to underachieving students.

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  • November 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm
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    Same experience as the AA mom you quoted, but I’m Caucasian so apparently it’s not racism.
    Every time I try to get my kid out of PCSSD or even into another PCSSD school, I hit a brick wall. She is on several waiting lists.
    They finally called me last year long after school started to grant me a transfer, but it was into my last choice, and I would have had to reapply every year and take a chance on being turned down and having to move my kid back to her assigned school. Anyway, by that time, my kid was happy in her class at the assigned school. She is doing well on the achievement tests, even though her school is on alert status. She is getting used to being around kids from all walks of life, and at her age (7) they are mostly sweet. (We are in the minority of families not on the free lunch program, but that is the case at almost ALL the public schools.) Her teachers have been great so far. We are still on waiting lists for two charters but I’m not sure what we’ll do when her name comes up. But I definitely have to get her out of there before high school. She is NOT going to our assigned school.

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