In a Changing World, Education Should be Centered on the Individual, not the Building

Yes, the world has changed drastically since Tony Evers went to school. Let the change keep occurring.

September 21, 2016

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

As a lifelong public school attendee who began my education in the Chicago Public School system, I’m not the most obvious choice for a defender of, well, educational choice. Even when I crossed the state border to become a badger or international borders to pursue a graduate degree, I have always attended public schools.

For my family, they worked. When my sister was ahead in her class, her attentive teachers contacted my parents and let them know their options for advanced programs where she could travel to a local high school to take classes in 7th grade. When I entered pre-kindergarten already having learned how to read, my teachers got in touch with my parents right away to discuss options for moving me up a grade, which I did after a few weeks of attending the 1st grade.

We were, and are, lucky. Lucky to have watchful teachers and involved parents. Lucky to have some flexibility in an otherwise rigid system, to get us to the more advanced level we needed to avoid the falling grades that would occur when we weren’t challenged enough.

Despite my not so coveted status as a millennial, I’m young enough to remember the different stages of my education quite well. I have spent the majority of my life not just inside a classroom, but being required to be there. In his State of Education speech last week, State Superintendent Tony Evers spent time discussing how much education has changed since his day. If education has changed since my youth, it’s imploded and exploded and morphed into something entirely different since his. Hyper-customized à la carte education has arrived.

Evers discussed the way education has changed, not only in the layout of our classrooms and playgrounds but in the challenges that teachers and students face. I greatly appreciate his aim to address mental health issues and the various adversities that our school-aged children face. They have been the elephant in the room for far too long. In discussing the need for student support, Evers calls for an extra lift that many children need.

Why, then, is he so opposed to the extra lift that educational choice provides for our children and their families? In the past, Evers has declared the statewide expansion of the school choice program to be “morally wrong.”

No, Dr. Evers. It’s morally wrong to force a child to attend a failing school based on a zip code he or she didn’t choose.

And yet, more than 31,000 students attend a Milwaukee Public School that is failing. The four-year graduation rate is only 58 percent, fully 30 points below the state average. Only 26 percent of MPS students achieved proficiency on the English Language Arts portion of the Badger exam, and only 16.5 percent were proficient in math. Achievement gaps plague the district but more importantly, they plague the students, many of whom have simply no other option for education. That they can go nowhere else in such dire circumstances is morally wrong.

It’s morally wrong for school districts to receive money for children whom they do not educate. It’s morally wrong not to allow families and children to pursue the absolute best option in education, whatever that means for them. It’s morally wrong to prioritize institutions over individuals.

Some children need extra attention. Some need more time. Some need less time! Choice, charter, virtual, and yes, public schools all exist to meet those needs. The future of education is in individualization, in the money following the child, not the other way around. Evers claims to be in favor of that future, yet stands in the way of it.

Trust me, Dr. Evers. Choice and public schools need not be diametrically opposed, as my story shows. It’s about the children, not the buildings – and you can absolutely still have community schools with the existence of hyper-individualized education. After all – to borrow a phrase more from your philosophy than mine – we all do better when we all do better.