School Choice

School Choice Isn't Just Something That Parents Want, It's a Human Right

School choice critics are ignoring one of the world’s most progressive documents which strongly endorses parent rights to choose the kind of education they want for their children. That document, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In article 26, it affirms:
Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
This is in the context of human rights in many other areas, including jobs, healthcare and free speech. The Declaration has a very progressive view of education. It urges:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
Why did world leaders create this document? The United Nations History of the Document explains:
World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere.
Critics like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and (private school parent) Diane Ravitch have tried to tie school choice (including private schools and, sometimes, charters) to southern segregationists. It’s certainly true that in many southern states, public funds were used to set up separate schools for White and African-America children. That’s a historical fact. But the UN Declaration also is a historical fact.

An Inspiration

As an urban public school educator who marched for civil rights in the 1960s and began inner-city teaching in 1970, I was one of many who was inspired by the UN Declaration. Like many public school educators throughout the country, I helped create and worked in new public (district) school options throughout the U.S. In 1985, Minnesota took the next step in offering public school choice by allowing high school students to choose to attend colleges and universities, with state funds following students, paying their tuition, book and lab fees. This “ post-secondary option” has been hugely popular, and helped inspire many districts to improve their programs. That 1985 law was followed by 1991 legislation that permitted creation of chartered public schools. Central to the idea of chartering was that organizations other than districts would be allowed to “authorize” new non-sectarian public schools, open to all. As fellow Minnesotan Ted Kolderie wrote, explaining some of the central principles of the chartering idea, “States will have to withdraw the exclusive” (franchise to create new public schools). If you look around the country, you’ll find alternative public school veterans like Sy Fliegel of the famed District 4 school choice program in New York City, Ted Sizer in Massachusetts, Judith Jones in Maine, and Wayne Jennings and yours truly in Minnesota who helped write charter public school legislation, and/or helped create charters.

Progressive Educators

While I support public school choice and chartering, I oppose public funds to private and parochial schools. I think it’s a bad idea for public funds to be used to support schools promoting one religion as superior to others. I also think publicly funded K-12 schools should not be allowed to pick and choose among students (which means, like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, with whom I worked), I oppose creation of magnet schools that use admissions tests to determine who can enroll. But I deeply respect Dr. Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee superintendent, who has long advocated not only for chartering but also for giving low-income families vouchers to attend private and parochial schools. His book, “No Struggle, No Progress” is a powerful description of decades of working with and for others to expand opportunity in education and other fields. And as we discuss various school choice plans, let’s also listen to people like Bill Wilson. Wilson is the first African American to be elected to the St. Paul, Minnesota City Council. A Democrat, he later was appointed Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights. Wilson has pointed out the “huge difference between being assigned to an inferior school because of his race”—as he and millions of other African-American youngsters were—and giving families choices among various schools. Wilson has founded and is executive director of the Higher Ground Academy charter, which has won many local and national awards. Looking back at history is fine. But as we do it, let’s re-read that wonderful UN Declaration of Human Rights, as well as what happened in the South. And let’s remember that chartering came from progressive educators and Minnesota Democrats who believed and believe in “Creating Hope and Opportunity in American Education.” School choice programs can be poorly designed (such as programs allowing schools to screen out students, or plans that don’t provide transportation). They can be badly implemented, such as some charter programs that have lacked transparency and permitted conflicts of interest. And let’s remember, there’s too much corruption in some district schools and school systems. Choice is a powerful tool, and like electricity it has to be used carefully. Well-designed, well implemented school choice programs are positive, progressive and entirely consistent with the UN Declaration affirming, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
Joe Nathan, Ph.D., helped write the nation's first charter public school law. Legislators and governors in more than 25 states have asked him to testify and provide information about chartering and other school improvement issues. Nathan has spent the last 44 years as a public school teacher, administrator, parent, researcher and advocate. Parent, student & professional groups have given him ...

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