Even in a social media world, I’m still a big backer of the notion that serious, informative, in-person dialogue about major public issues is a good thing. The more contentious and important the subject and the more level-headed the discussion, the better. When it comes to contentiousness and importance, almost nothing in the realm of education policy rivals the subject of private school vouchers for kindergartner through twelfth grade students. Milwaukee was the place where vouchers for low-income, urban students were launched in1990. And, with the election of Donald Trump as president and Trump’s selection of voucher-advocate Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education, vouchers are a hot subject.
All of this is to say that I thought the hour-long session at Marquette Law School on Wednesday was worth listening to, and the opportunity to do that remains, as you can find at the end of this blog item. In a program titled Lessons from a Quarter Century of School Vouchers: One Conversation, Two Points of View, we brought together Scott Jensen, a key figure in the voucher movement in Wisconsin and now an adviser to the American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group headed by DeVos, and Julie Underwood, a professor in the education and law schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a long-time advocate for public schools.
I make no claim to impartiality in saying that this was a good event – I helped organize it and moderated the discussion. But I regarded it as an honor to be part of something that offered thoughtful and differing views on a major matter.
I’d add to those reports the final comments from each of the speakers. I asked them what they saw as the future of “bad” schools. I said I hoped it was bleak, but I wasn’t so such of that.
Jensen said, “I’m hoping they become rare. . . . I think there are adults on all sides who need to step up here, that there are policy makers who need to step up and stop defending failure, whether it is in the private schools in the choice program, some of the charter schools that are weak, or some of the public schools in Milwaukee that are weak. We all have to step up here and either repair those schools or replace them with high performing schools.”
Underwood said, “I believe that every child deserves a great education and I think that people who are willing to support children receiving a great education should be supported. I believe we need to pay attention at the front end to make sure there are lots of conditions to make sure children have a great education in terms of health and safety and curriculum . . . . and that we need to hold everybody — everybody, all of the adults — accountable for that. But I believe in public access to education and universal access to education. And I don’t believe that any kind of universal vouchers or privatization of all our programs actually leads us there.”
There are differences of opinion included in those two views. But there was also a shared sense of wanting to see more children succeed in school and to see more children get what they most need from their experiences in the education system. Is that the start of finding some common ground? There’s a lot of distance to go, of course. But we offered thoughtful views from two people who are committed to education. That alone is a good thing, in my opinion.
Video of the session may be viewed by clicking here.