Will Teachers Benefit from School Choice?
Peggy McLellan teaches biology and physical science at Reese High School in Reese, Michigan, and is the President of the Reese Professional Education Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association.
Go to one of your local schools some day, during lunch hour, perhaps. If you can find some teachers who aren't grading papers or supervising recess, ask them to list which things they believe will benefit them and their school the most. Parental choice, if it makes the list at all, will be at the bottom, far below the substantive issues: smaller class size, parental involvement and student readiness, increased safety, a quality curriculum, and professional development. "School choice," whether by voucher or tax credit or any other method, is little more than a sound bite; it offers no solutions to the very real problems teachers encounter daily.
Advocates of school choice cannot deny the importance of smaller classes in improving education. Ask them; they'll say that they would choose schools that provide lots of individual attention for their children. Teachers can give that kind of attention in a class of twenty students; they can't in a class of forty. And it's more difficult to be a student in a class of forty, too- especially a student who needs some extra help. Will school choice reduce class size?
Not at all. It will merely shift the numbers around, and large classes are no more productive in private schools than in public ones.
Just as important as reduced class size is parental involvement, and it means far more than attending Suzy's soccer game or baking cookies for the school bazaar. Involvement means taking an active role in children's learning, whether reading with them, supervising their homework, or conferring with their teachers. Parents who are motivated to help their children succeed will do so, regardless of which school the children attend.
Parents who aren't so motivated will not. The school choice movement isn't going to change that.
School choice also will not make unprepared children ready to learn. Every teacher knows of students who are sleep-deprived because their parents fought all night or whose last meal was yesterday's school lunch or who are preyed upon by their mother's new boyfriend. These students are distracted, to say the least. They have far more pressing matters on their minds than reading Chaucer or balancing equations. And they are in every school, not just the public schools. Moving them to different schools would simply mean taking their problems to a new setting. These kids are victims of societal ills that school choice cannot begin to fix.
Another social problem that school choice will not fix is school violence. Certainly teachers want safe schools for their students and themselves, but school choice is not the answer. School choice will not limit children's access to weapons, will not appease angry gang members, and will not bring a sense of belonging to the outcasts who shoot their classmates over real or imagined slights. Wide-open school choice seeks to escape these dangers rather than address them.
But it provides neither escape nor safety. It does, however, allow the parents of the gun-toters and knife-wielders to choose private and parochial schools for their kids. Ask the teachers at those schools if they will benefit from such a choice.
What teachers and students will benefit from is a meaningful statewide core curriculum with uniformly high academic standards. When teachers from Iron Mountain to Flat Rock are teaching to the same objectives, enforcing the same standards of achievement, and evaluating all students with meaningful assessment tests, school choice will be irrelevant. Making all schools the best they can be, rather than paying students to migrate from one to another, will benefit everyone, teachers and students alike.
But making all schools the best they can be will involve making all teachers the best they can be, and that means giving teachers opportunities to update their skills through quality professional development programs. When all teachers have the latest training in their subject matter, as well as in child development, classroom technology, and community collaboration, students will benefit, too. And once again, school choice will become a non-issue.
So will school choice benefit teachers? Of course not. Is it intended to benefit teachers? Of course not. The intent of school choice isn't to reduce class size, involve parents, make children ready to learn, or curb violence. It isn't even to make schools or teachers better. The intent is merely to create the appearance of improving education while eroding the public school system. It does nothing to address the real problems in schools or to set about solving them sensibly.