One Reformer’s Heroic Story to Save America’s Public School Children

Daniel Doherty

2/6/2013 2:30:00 PM - Daniel Doherty

Michelle Rhee is a lifelong Democrat and education reformer who has recently come out in support of school vouchers. Writing in the Daily Beast a few days ago, she explained the prevailing reason for her change of heart: Her countless (and at times) heartbreaking interactions with devastated parents coping with the realization that their child would be stuck in a failing school -- forever. And the feeling that there was nothing she could do for them:

After my listening tour of families, and hearing so many parents plead for an immediate solution to their desire for a quality education, I came out in favor of the voucher program. People went nuts. Democrats chastised me for going against the party, but the most vocal detractors were my biggest supporters.

“Michelle, what are you doing?” one education reformer asked. “You are the first opportunity this city has had to fix the system. We believe in you and what you’re trying to do. But you have to give yourself a fighting chance! You need time and money to make your plan work. If during that time children continue fleeing the system on these vouchers, you’ll have less money to implement your reforms. You can’t do this to yourself!”

“Here’s the problem with your thinking,” I’d answer. “My job is not to preserve and defend a system that has been doing wrong by children and families. My job is to make sure that every child in this city attends an excellent school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a private school, or a traditional district school. As long as it’s serving kids well, I’m happy. And you should be, too.”

Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.

Perhaps the most moving excerpt from her editorial is when she points out the flawed reasoning of a close -- presumably fellow Democratic -- friend:

I was having a heated discussion one day with one of my closest friends, a public school teacher. She was deriding voucher policy. My public policy wonkiness was not serving me well, so I decided to change tactics.

“Of course,” she answered. “One of my best friends was featured in the movie.” She chuckled.

“Do you remember that scene with Bianca?” I asked.

Waiting for “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim did a brilliant job of distilling pretty complicated education policies into easy and understandable terms. But more important, he humanized the problems by following five families in their quest to find a high-quality public school for their children to attend.

One of the most poignant stories was about a little girl named Bianca. Her mother had had a negative experience in the public schools herself. So she was committed to giving her child a better chance. When Bianca was in kindergarten her mother enrolled her in the Catholic school across the street from their apartment, and she worked extra jobs to be able to pay the tuition.

Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, her hours were cut back, and she fell behind on her tuition payments. There is an emotional scene in the movie when Bianca is gazing longingly out the window. It is the day of her kindergarten graduation. She’s watching all of her friends and their families file in for the graduation ceremony, but she’s not allowed to attend. Tears are streaming down her face.

“Remember,” I pleaded, “her mom owed the school money so they didn’t let her go to her kindergarten graduation? How did that make you feel?”

“Ugh, that was awful,” my friend said. “It was totally wrong of the school. It was absolutely heart-wrenching! I mean seriously, I wanted to write the five-hundred-dollar check myself!”

“Right,” I said, “that would be a voucher.”

What’s more, she continued, the reasoning behind opposing school vouchers is completely illogical and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:

Most people in this country do not favor vouchers in education, because they don’t want public dollars going to private institutions or businesses. But the logic holds absolutely no water.

We have federal Pell grants that low-income students use all the time to attend private colleges. Pell grants aren’t limited to use at public universities. We have food stamps that low-income families redeem at nongovernment grocery stores. And let’s not forget about Medicare and Medicaid.

Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ’Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”

No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.

I agree. Children simply can’t wait five, fifty, or 100 years for inner-city public schools to “fix” themselves. Children need access to a high quality education now -- that is, from the moment they enter the classroom. And any policy that makes this possible should at least be universally considered, right?

Wrong.

The teachers unions -- for many of the reasons Rhee gives at the beginning of her must read article -- overwhelming oppose any sort of voucher program. It takes money away from schools that need it most, they argue, and the program can’t help everyone. Okay. But wasn’t it the president who said -- in an admittedly different context -- that if we can do anything to save one child, “then surely we have an obligation to try”? Rhee’s testimony is compelling evidence that such initiatives help children, and have given hundreds (if not thousands) of low-income students an opportunity to succeed.

The teachers unions always claim that they’re “for the kids,” but how can you be “for the kids” if you demonize a program that opens doorways of opportunity to students that would otherwise be closed to them? In other words, the question isn’t necessarily why should you support school vouchers -- it’s why shouldn’t you? I’ve yet to hear an anti-voucher advocate articulate a rational response to this question, at least one that takes into account this simple fact: A low-income family given a school voucher is better off than the countless students left -- year after year -- helpless and alone and trapped in failing schools.

The special interests need to reconcile and re-think their opposition to this important program. It’s about time they did.