By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
Education reformers are taking this week to celebrate School Choice Week with 3,500 events all across the country. In Phoenix, over 7,200 people joined the Jonas Brothers to celebrate the start of National School Choice Week. Meanwhile, a Whistle Stop train tour of the country held a kick-off event at Union Station in Los Angeles before embarking on a fourteen-city tour of the country.
On Wednesday, the Whistle Stop tour will come to Milwaukee for a School Choice Week breakfast at the Grain Exchange. It will be a bi-partisan event with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele in attendance.
I spoke with National School Choice Week President Andrew Campanella on Saturday as he was riding the train from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, NM. Campanalla said of the stop in Milwaukee, “I’m interested in seeing what folks in Milwaukee are going to be speaking about. It’s amazing we have Governor Scott Walker standing side-by-side with Mayor Barrett after they ran against each other twice in the span of a few years. So, I’m really excited we’re bringing together people who can find at least a sliver of common ground on this issue.”
“If we can agree that we need to provide parents with options and then we can work the details out – I know that it’s hard to work the details out – at least we came to an agreement on something. And I think this is a huge step in the right direction. We can’t exclude anyone from this discussion. We can’t say that just because someone is not for one form of school choice or the other that they’re not welcome. We want to include everyone in the big tent discussion. “
Campanella said National School Choice Week started “organically” two years ago when parents were concerned that opponents of choice were dominating the education discussion. “So parents got together and they said let’s have one week where we can celebrate and have our voices heard, and that became National School Choice Week.”
The first year National School Choice Week had 50 events nationwide. The next year there were 406 events. “And the third year, this year right now, we are going to have 3,500 independently planned, independently funded events all across the country.”
National School Choice Week celebrations this year began in Phoenix, “because Arizona has really made a strong showing for National School Choice Week,” Campanella said.
“Over the past two years, the state has a robust menu of educational options. And there was just so much enthusiasm and excitement for school choice that we wanted to see if we could put that enthusiasm on a national stage.”
The alternative to providing options for parents and children is a continuance on the path of educational failure. I asked Campanella to explain to me a statement he made about the “high cost of low achievement.” He said, “Every twenty-six seconds another child drops out of school in this country. And by the time we’ll have talked, maybe a dozen or more kids will have dropped out of school statistically. We’re looking at every year the number dropouts being about 1.2 million and the economic drain is astronomical. It’s more than the state budgets of Wisconsin, California and Texas combined.”
I asked Campanella what he would say to someone who said they don’t need school choice in their district because their district is doing okay. “My response is that a school might be doing fine for 99.9% of the kids, but if your child is the .1% that isn’t achieving in that school, or is struggling, that is very cold comfort for you. And, as a parent, you need to be able to choose a different school for your child.
“It doesn’t mean that the schools in your district are bad. School choice is not punitive. It doesn’t demonize anyone. It elevates parents to true decision makers.
“So school choice embraces all forms of education. Traditional public schools are a huge component of school choice. Public charter schools. Magnet schools. Private schools. Online learning. Home schooling. So there are really a lot of different sectors of education that are represented and parents can choose any number of them.”
Campanella said the school choice movement had successes in the past year. “We saw charter schools protected and defended in Georgia. A charter school law passed for the first time by voters in Washington State. We saw the expansion of school choice opportunity scholarship programs in a number of different states, and we saw the expansion of open enrollment and online learning, which is very important to the school choice movement as well.”
“In terms of disappointment, there are still some states, eight states out there, that don’t have public charter schools. Even though 21 states have private school choice, that’s less than half the country. So we really need to accelerate the pace of reform.
“Just as fast as this train is going, we need reform even faster in this country. Because if we don’t, every minute we waste is another child dropping out, another child who isn’t seeing his or her dreams realized, another child who won’t be able to get that ticket to the American dream. That’s what this tour and National School Choice Week is all about.”