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National School Choice Week raises charter school and public school debate

Brandon Paykamian • Jan 23, 2019 at 6:51 PM

Sunday marked the beginning of National School Choice Week, which aims to raise awareness about the different educational opportunities available to children, from traditional public school settings to public charter schools, private schools and homeschooling.

Coincidentally, this week began days after recently inaugurated Gov. Bill Lee appointed another ally and school choice proponent, former Texas Deputy Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, to serve as education commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Ashley Academy Headmaster Ramona Harr said school choice allows students to find their best fit outside of traditional public schools. She said some students thrive more in smaller settings, and some other charter and private schools outside of the public school systems are designed to specialize in educating children with autism and learning disabilities.

In general, Harr, who has worked within both traditional public and private school settings, said education isn’t “one size fits all.”

“When you can find where a child would be successful, why would we not want that for them? That’s the idea – it’s not a competition,” she said. “It’s about what best meets the needs of the student.

“I think students respond differently, and some schools are a better fit for others.”

Washington County Schools Director Bill Flanary agreed that choice is important, but said he is against diverting public funds to charter schools.

“Speaking as a public school educator, I have no problem with charter schools, private schools or home schools. How a child is educated should be at the discretion of the child's parents, and the availability of different educational opportunities isn't a bad thing,” he said. “I have a big problem with steering public education dollars away from public schools, and that goes beyond the simple loss of funding. Taxpayers should have a say in how tax dollars are spent.”

Retired educator and education columnist Bill Smith, a vocal advocate of promoting traditional public schools in favor of charter schools, said the push for favoring charter and private schools over public schools is often ideological and agreed with what Flanary said about funding.

“I hate to get into motives, but when you look at Republican advocacy of ‘school choice,’ what we’re doing is essentially giving a rebate to a couple of groups of voters who are with the Republicans anyhow — the wealthy and well-to-do who decided they’d rather send their kids to private schools, and the far-right who have decided our schools are godless,” he said, adding he is concerned the push could encourage economic, racial and religious segregation among American students.

“I just think it’s a misplaced faith in market fundamentalism. They’ve bought into the rhetoric that our schools are failing,” he continued. “They believe that our schools are awful and are going to lead to the decline of the nation and believe a competitive system is going to change all of that.”

Smith said he is concerned about an educational system that separates students.

“Public schools are probably the last place in America where all of society convene and kids come together and learn together with people who aren’t like themselves,” Smith said.

National School Choice Week will continue until Jan. 26 as students, parents, teachers and others plan events across the country and the state to promote school choice.

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