The record-breaking numbers for the seventh annual National School Choice Week (NSCW), which wrapped up January 28, were stunning: There were 21,392 events held, with participation from some 16,000 schools and 2,000 home-schooling groups; more than 6 million attendees at events ranging from rallies at state Capitols to community forums; and close to 1 million online views of event highlights posted on the NSCW website.
More powerful than statistics was the joy on the faces of students that spoke of their love for schools chosen for them by their parents. Some of them danced to the week’s official song, Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” while waving the NSCW’s signature bright-yellow scarves.
The blend of youthful energy and conviction was quite compelling. As for the adult organizers of NSCW, their stated purpose was to shed the spotlight in a positive, politics-free way on all types of school choice—including open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.
Despite the massive show of unity, not all Americans were in a mood to celebrate or to leave politics aside for a few days. The Left’s pretentiously named People for the American Way (PFAW) reacted to the yellow scarves as a bull would to a red flag.
Writing on January 24 in PFAW’s Right Wing Watch, Peter Montgomery slammed NSCW as a “public relations spectacle designed to promote positive feelings about policies that undermine public education. It promotes a cheerful vibe by wrapping its participants in bright yellow scarves, which serve as a flashy distraction from the agenda at hand.”
So, the proud parents and teachers and the tens of thousands of children who enthusiastically paid tribute to their schools, public or private, should feel that they have been used? Maybe for the Left that is the new “American Way”—to cast aspersions on people you don’t even know.
Moderate/liberal commentator Juan Williams is certainly no tool of the radical right, yet Williams appeared on the January 24 edition of Fox News’ The Five sporting an NSCW yellow scarf and declaring his support for “more opportunity for parents to find the best schools for their kids.”
As for the criticism that choice drains resources from traditional public schools, NSCW President Andrew Campanella had this response in a January 24 interview with the online publication Real Clear Education: “… anyone who is talking about school choice and isn’t counting traditional public schools as a vital choice that parents can make for their kids, is counting out public education, and I think that’s a mistake. So, I don’t know how school choice can hurt traditional public schools when they are an important component of school choice.
“I do, however, know that research shows school choice helps all schools, and helps traditional public schools improve when they need to,” said Campanella. “What’s most important to remember, though, is that education is about kids and their futures. It seems too easy for some folks to lose sight of that.”
The bulk of PFAW’s diatribe against NSCW targeted Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to be U.S. secretary of education, and her previous advocacy and financial support for charter school and voucher initiatives. The implication was the 2017 event was all about DeVos and the $20 billion in federal support for school choice promised by Trump during the presidential campaign. But it wasn’t. Nor was it about Trump, even though he did issue an official proclamation in favor of NSCW.
Indicative of the divergence of opinion was a January 26 K12DC blogpost (picked up on NSCW’s Twitter feed) by Dr. Howard Fuller, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools. “For many,” Fuller wrote, “the election of Donald Trump as President has created an environment that is toxic at best and calamitous at worst. As a black man who voted for Hillary Clinton and supports parent choice, I am torn. I am concerned not only about parent choice in the realm of education but also worried about deportations, women’s rights, and access to health care, among other things.”
Nevertheless, Fuller continued, the goal in celebrating National School Choice Week remains the same no matter who is president: “to continue the fight for substantive and real improvements in the life chances of all our children, particularly those who come from low-income and working-class black families in America. For them, the realization of the promise of the American dream remains largely elusive.”
In other words, the week really was all about the kids and their energy, exuberance, pride, and their hopes and dreams, which they expressed clearly as they waved those yellow scarves and danced up a storm. In the end, you could say it was about advancing the American way by expanding opportunity for all.