Alumni Voice: Private school choice isn’t the answer for Tennessee

January 31, 2024

In a recent opinion piece, our alum Dr. Audrey Elion highlights the importance of high-quality public schools and public school choice in Memphis. The full opinion piece is below. This article was originally published in The Daily Memphian.

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Opinion: Private school choice isn’t the answer for Tennessee

By Dr. Audrey Elion, Guest Columnist

It’s been 11 years since the creation of the Achievement School District when the state took over the operation and oversight of the lowest-performing schools in the state, nearly all of them in Memphis.

Since that time all manner of new schools and turnaround efforts have been undertaken. Dozens of new schools have opened in our city with the goal of providing students and families with the choices and opportunities they need to find an educational experience that meets their unique needs.

This form of public school choice is a lifeline for many Memphis families. Schools can and should be safe spaces that foster the personal growth, development and well-being of students regardless of their background.

Having been born in Memphis and having attended our city’s schools starting at Idlewild Elementary and graduating from Central High, I know what is possible when an excellent public education is made available. As a consultant with mental health experience who has spent her career working with young people in our public schools, our court systems and our communities, I have seen the transformational power of a high-quality public education that fits the needs of a student who have experienced trauma.

Unfortunately, I have also seen what the failure to find such a public school education along those lines can mean: disengagement, personal struggle, and worse. The school-to-prison pipeline is no fiction. I’ve seen it up close working with court-involved youth as the special assistant for trauma-informed interventions with Juvenile Court.

Adverse childhood events — community violence, abuse, neglect and more — affect many children in our city. Our schools are literally on the front lines of working to serve students affected by such trauma. Under-resourced schools, schools that are not able to provide the wraparound services students need, can come up woefully short in serving our students with the greatest needs and who face more barriers to success.

Public school choice with proper resources, oversight and transparency is a powerful tool for creating the tailored and thoughtful systems of support students need to persist and prosper in the face of adverse childhood events. This is possible in Memphis given the diverse landscape of schools in our city and the flexibility granted to educators to develop responsive school models to effectively serve students who experience trauma.

Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that public school choice of the kind Memphis possesses provides a range of positive impacts for students including improved achievement, rising graduation rates and other positive indicators of student success. That same research shows public school choice actually strengthens all schools in a given area; a rising tide of choice lifts all academic ships.

But now there is word state leaders are proposing a new school-voucher program. The so-called Education Freedom Scholarship Act would funnel money out of our public schools, including our public charter schools, and instead put that money into private schools. Along with the proposal comes precious little in the way of accountability and oversight of how these schools would serve students. Given the planned universal access to these funds, it seems probable if not likely a great number of the student beneficiaries would be from families who were already attending private school.

As laudable as it is to try to provide families with more options, there is a fundamental difference between public school choice and private school choice. Public schools are free to all students, are accountable to policymakers and taxpayers, have clear lines of oversight through elected and appointed officials and must strictly adhere to civil rights and other legal protections for students. A private school choice initiative like the one now proposed by state leaders would come up short on those critical protections.

And the public is paying attention. Polling done at the national level shows most voters overwhelmingly support public school choice over private choice. The support for public school options is particularly high among Black and Latino parents, with 80% of Black parents and 71% of Latino parents supporting the kinds of public school options that exist in Memphis.

Families value high-quality public school options. Students, especially those who face hardship and barriers to success, need the ability to attend a school that meets their unique needs. The public needs the resources, accountability and transparency in their systems of public education to ensure public resources are being used wisely and in the service of students.

Creating a private school choice program isn’t what Memphis students or any student in Tennessee needs. We need to continue to focus our efforts on building and strengthening a robust system of public school choice that delivers for all types of learners and families of every background.

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