My School, My Decision

This leg of my trip lands me in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The news for this day comes courtesy of The Milwaukee Community Journal, Wisconsin’s largest Black newspaper.

The headline reads, “Gov. Doyle signs bill expanding choice.” It specifically refers to reforms to the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, which allows for qualified families to receive financial help to send their children to private schools in the city of Milwaukee. We will use this story to discuss the idea of “school choice” programs in Milwaukee and other places around the country.

I went to public preschool, kindergarten, and 1st & 2nd grade at public schools in Detroit. After my family moved to Farmington, I attended 3rd thru 12th grades at public schools in Farmington. I then graduated from the University of Michigan, a public university. I say all that to provide full disclosure that I am a product of public education.

Most understand differences between public and private education. Generally, private schools offer smaller class sizes [than their public counterparts], more specialized/focused curricula, more Advanced Placement opportunities, etc. Most of these differences exist due to the simple fact that you must pay tuition to attend private school. Most understand that all public school systems are not created equal. There were definite differences in the Detroit and Farmington systems in terms of access to resources, quality of facilities, and parental/community participation. These differences exist for any number of reasons, which I will not list here. The characteristics of private schools as described above are ones that most families would desire for their school-aged children.

In order to address these differences, the concept of “school choice” was born. It essentially says that the government, acknowledging inequalities between public and private schools, will subsidize a student’s tuition to a private school, if the student and family meet a set of criteria [that differs depending on the location].

This begs the following: how does one define “public education?” Does it mean government provided/sanctioned/sponsored? Does it mean funded by tax revenue? Does it mean comprised of students from the community surrounding the school? In my opinion, your answer to this question helps to frame your views on school choice.

“School choice” is making the private schools in effect semi-public, if you believe that public equals funded by tax revenue, since most “school choice” programs are not ones that you pay to participate in. It also “public-izes” them if you believe that public equals government-sponsored, in the sense that the government has a set of [private] schools for which it chooses to subsidize the cost of attendance.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle’s expansion bill increases the number of students allowed to participate, increases funding towards smaller class sizes via the SAGE Program, adjustments to student eligibility requirements, and other things. The issue I have with this particular plan has to do with how the smaller class size monies are handled. The article says that $25 million will be raised, $8 million of which will go to the public schools. What is happening with the other $17 million? Why is it not earmarked for the same purpose?

I generally disagree with the “school choice” model. I see it as an easy, cop-out method employed by state and local governments to avoid acknowledging, confronting, and addressing issues in challenged schools within public districts. To me, public education means government funded thru tax dollars. That means that if I pay taxes, I should be granted premium educational opportunities AT NO ADDITIONAL COST. The reason some feel “forced” to enroll their kids in private schools that they may or may not be able to afford is because of the failure of the government to provide this basic service. As opposed to facing this, “school choice” lets them off with zero accountability.

So how do we “fix” public education? I believe the solution is two-fold. First, IN OUR MINDS education must shift from a desired luxury to a practical necessity. I am by no means a psychologist, but I do believe that people treat their wants and needs differently. If we embraced a MINDSET that said education was essential for survival, then there would be less apathy towards it and negativity associated with it (e.g. No more being labeled as “talking white”). We see tangible examples of education’s practicality and necessity in the job market, where more and more occupations require higher and higher levels of formal education.

The second, which occurs in parallel to the first, is a change in what we see as the purpose of education. My mentor Calvin Mackie says, “if it only makes dollars, it doesn’t make sense.” Applied here, this means that if we view education only as a means to attain financial “success,” then we do not really value/understand it. This is an underlying motivation behind alarmingly high dropout rates in high school and college. People feel like the same money they could make in X years by becoming educated can be made in X days by leaving school and working/hustling immediately. If knowledge and education went beyond pathways to paychecks, maybe this would not be such a disturbing trend. How can we change this?

By changing the way we talk about education.
Make knowledge the priority over practicality (read: profitability) of an area of study.

By changing the way we talk about and define success.
Is wisdom, health and experience more important than money? Some would argue yes, others no. This does not mean that money has no practical value. It does mean that it should be a tool and not a goal.

By changing the way we educate.
Emphasize personal, practical aspects of subjects as opposed to standardized ideas. Encourage people to think critically by creating their own interpretations and challenge them to defend them. This is basically what happens in college. I argue that it should be applied upstream.

On the other side, school choice introduces competition to the public school monopoly that exists in many places. Can this “free market” approach to education be the jolt that public schools need to get it together? I don’t necessarily think so, but I am quite open to persuasion.

Am I wrong?
What am I missing?
How do you feel?

Garlin Gilchrist II

Sent using Windows Mobile 5.0


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “My School, My Decision”

  1. Y says :

    Garlin, this topic touches home for me. This is a great post. You know how I feel on the subject, I’m for private, unless I’m able to send my child to a public school that’s not overcrowded and that has access to comparable resources.

  2. Steve says :

    I can understand where you are coming from G with the fact that we should hold government accountable. However, in the interim, we cannot afford to put children in schools that do not work, and have subpar materials. And giving money is only one part of the problem lest we fall into a money pit. Competition has been good, as MPS has had to step it up and be more fiscally responsible. I am a product of the CHOICE program, as you know, and there are externalities and intangibles that must also be accounted for. What about the networks that private schools give you access to? What about the environment? A lot of these schools are not conducive to learning and concentration, why penalize those who are serious about learning? In the end it is the children who suffer. By having alternative markets, people will self-sort into what school or atmosphere is best. In economics we call this a “pooling equilibrium”. And it is a way of managing risk (e.g. insurance and premiums).

    Eventually, I hope we get to this point where we can hold the government accountable and our collective community can revert to the cultural values of prizing learning and growth and where inner-city public schools are able to compete and provide the same exposure as public schools. But until that day comes and the necessary reforms come down, give people options, give the children who want more a chance. As many have said, when it is your child, you only get one shot. One.

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