Conversations surrounding education reform consistently center around the school choice debate. To summarize, politicians and reformers have been aggressively debating on whether to expand the charter school system, which is comprised of government-funded schools that operate outside of the public school system with more flexibility. However, charter schools, which only served 3.2 million students in the 2017–18 school year compared to the 50.7 million students in the nation’s public schools, should not dominate the majority of discourse regarding education reform. It is critical that public schools remain at the forefront of the conversation, attention and reform policy, independent of efforts to either propagate or stifle charter schools.
The recent wave of teachers’ strikes across the nation has revealed the dismal state of elementary and secondary schools, and the public education system’s need for attention has never been more urgent. Public elementary and secondary schools are currently failing to meet the most basic needs of students and teachers across the nation. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation and the site where 30,000 teachers walked out in a strike, there is an average of 36 students per class and a lack of nurses, counselors and academic advisors.
Despite this urgency, Democrats and Republicans alike have continuously rallied around an education reform policy facilitating school choice ever since the campaign to marketize education took off in the 1980s. Similarly, public conversations regarding education reform are usually dominated by the debate around school choice policy. This is clearly reflected in national politics: current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched an aggressive policy to redirect the Education Department’s funds toward school choice and voucher programs. Similarly, Arne Duncan, secretary of education under the Obama administration, broadly increased school choice in efforts to close the achievement gap and increase upward mobility.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the public and governmental focus on school choice undeniably detracts attention from the public school system, which, as an institution serving 90 percent of America’s school-aged children, deserves more attention.
Fortunately, the trend of teachers’ strikes has put public education reform at the forefront of conversation and policy. Although the LAUSD teachers’ strike was primarily rallying at the local board level, it successfully captured the attention of national politicians, from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn.
These strikes have fueled the public’s awareness of the state of many school districts, increasing the likelihood that their administrations will be held accountable. And this may be a step in the right direction, but it is crucial to remember to keep public education reform at the center of policy discussions as a distinct issue from school-choice.
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