One of the most problematic issues in public education today is how often the discourse
tends to be polarized and politicized. In
forums both locally and nationally, the loudest rhetoric about how best to educate our children increasingly seems to fall into one of two camps:
- Traditional public education advocates, who typically promote the belief that all school choice is damaging, tend to describe all choice proponents as trying to privatize education, and have (legitimate) concerns that strong accountability is unevenly applied and often has unintended consequences.
- Traditional public education critics, who often claim that public school systems are hopelessly broken, promote the belief that the best solutions lie in strong accountability and increased competition from charter and private schools, and who have (also legitimate) concerns that the status quo is not working for all kids.
The Jacksonville Public Education Fund, like so many Duval County community members we hear from and work with each day, doesn't belong squarely in either camp. Our board members and our beliefs span across political lines. We do our best to go about our research without any preconceived agenda. We work hard to listen to the community, but we're not afraid to say something unpopular. And we are trying to stand up for what our daily work tells us is often the silent majority: people who want to make sure the next generation is prepared for the future, and have nuanced and complex views on what it will take to give them the skills they need to succeed.
We believe our education system needs remodeling, keeping the parts that are working well (there are many) and replacing the parts that are outdated (there are plenty of those, too).
Sometimes, though, trying to promote this balanced perspective can be difficult. What we've discovered over our five years of existence is that stepping outside of the traditional political discourse makes some people very uncomfortable. Sometimes, when we talk about ideas that don't fit neatly into one ideological camp or another, vocal people on the left and the right tend to interpret the message as an attack on their beliefs.
When we published our most recent report on school choice in Duval County [Backpage Editorial, "Choice for Choice's Sake," Chris Guerrieri, Nov. 26], we knew that there would always be the risk that partisan voices from either side of the school-choice debate could pick and choose elements of the report to support their pre-existing beliefs about the topic — or us. But that doesn't bother us much. The report focused on how parents and caregivers navigate today's increasingly complex landscape, and how schools can ensure that families get the information and options they need to make the best choice for their individual child.
We believe that students and their families should be able to learn about and choose from a variety of high-quality public education options, including magnet programs, career academies and charter schools. We also believe that traditional public schools and these other options should be allowed to compete fairly, under equivalent funding and regulatory conditions, which currently don't always exist.
When any education policy discussion is allowed to be narrowed to the strict positions of two intensely divided camps, the resulting firestorm can extinguish any possibility for the more productive conversations that parents and citizens routinely tell us they want to hear. That leaves too many important "remodeling" projects in education unattended.
We believe that community members, when armed with information and empowered to speak out, know what's best for their kids and all our city's children. And we think that there are far too many important conversations to have about public education to let them get drowned out by rhetoric.
To all of you out there who don't speak out because of this divisive rhetoric: We hope you'll check out the brief for yourself and know you're not alone. Take a look, and let us know what you think. While you're there, please click on the "Take Action" tab and consider joining us at the annual ONE-by-ONE convention Jan. 31. Our community needs voices like yours in the conversation, now more than ever.
Csar is president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.