Thoughts on Melissa Westbrook's "Digging Deep: What is Public Education?"

By Matt Halvorson

“And no, all our efforts should NOT be expended in replacing the current system because the system continues to work for many, many students.”

"We have charter schools in this country that are, if you believe their talk of 'innovation' and change, are basically experimenting on kids to try to find new and better ways to reach them."

"We're Americans and we love to have choices.  But ask any foreigner who comes to the U.S. and goes to a Bartell's - so many choices! It's overwhelming and how do you know which one is best?  Getting the wrong toothpaste?  Not such a bad choice but getting the wrong school for your child? There's a bad choice."

 - Melissa Westbrook, “Digging Deep: What is Public Education?


Public education is a tool for equity and advancement, the fulfillment of each individual child’s right to a high-quality education that treats her fairly and gives her a genuine opportunity to succeed.

The idea of school choice only comes into play when we fall short of that ideal, when a neighborhood school is failing to fulfill that fundamental obligation. It’s about having somewhere else to turn when your neighborhood public school is not, for whatever reason, an acceptable option.

Parents from all walks of life can identify. More than 30 percent of Seattle’s children attend private schools, for instance, presumably in pursuit of a better education than they believe their neighborhood school can offer. But most private school parents, of course, have to pay tuition, so it’s a school choice that’s not available to everyone.

But that’s okay, right? Even without a second option, all parents are still being offered a free education for their children. Why do they need another option? After all, “the system continues to work for many, many students.”

Well, just a few years ago, for example, Seattle Public Schools were the subject of a federal investigation into their disproportionate discipline of students of color.

Now if you’re raising an African-American boy, you know both statistically and anecdotally that your son will be disciplined more frequently and treated more harshly in school because of the color of his skin.

Suddenly there's more than just a “tickle in the back of your brain [asking] ‘Maybe there's a better school for my child?’.”

It makes you angry. It makes you afraid of what that might do to your little boy. It makes you desperate to do something, to get your kid out of that school and out of harm’s way.

But instead, if you can’t afford private school tuition, you’re all but stuck in the system. You can choose a different public school in the same problematic district, playing by the same problematic rules in the same system, but that’s just putting the same issues in a new building and hoping for a different result.

So, given that it’s possible for an entire district to be impacted by the same problem, having some schools — like charter schools, for example — that “don’t have the same public oversight as others” might actually be a good thing. They help extend that privilege of school choice to all students and all families.

Let's be clear: charter schools aren’t perfect. They’re not The Answer. But if nothing else, they’re trying to be different, and that’s important, given the state of things.

After all, what’s crazier? “Basically experimenting on kids to try to find new and better ways to reach them,” or continuing to churn kids through a system that we know is statistically likely to fail them?

“And no, all our efforts should NOT be expended in replacing the current system because the system continues to work for many, many students.”

Right. No one is disputing that this system works for many students. But that’s like the education version of “All Lives Matter.” There’s some truth to it, but it totally undermines the point. The point is that the system doesn't work for all students, and you can predict which students those will be based on their race and their families’ income.

The public education status quo we’re clinging to in Washington is producing a growing opportunity gap. Our handful of new charter schools are sharing some impressive academic results with low-income students and students of color even as they simultaneously advocate for their lives. But they’re on the chopping block, because evidently in Washington you only deserve school choice — in other words, access to an appropriate, high-quality education should your neighborhood school fail to provide it — if you can afford to pay for it.