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News / Northwest

UW grad takes on the death of public schools in new book

By Claire Bryan, The Seattle Times
Published: September 25, 2023, 6:00am

SEATTLE — Cara Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter and editor, spent almost five years writing about segregation in Pinellas County, Fla., a state with many education options. After following families fleeing segregated, low-performing public schools, she grew curious about whether they were finding higher-quality schools elsewhere.

Her book “The Death of Public School” charts the nation’s history of school choice and how more public funding now goes toward private institutions than ever before.

School choice programs include vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. When they first started, they were specifically for students with high needs, Fitzpatrick writes, but over time Republican lawmakers have pushed the movement to include all students.

In Washington, the only school choice options are charter schools, 16 in all. In an interview, Fitzpatrick spoke about how the school choice movement might shape up in Washington.

Fitzpatrick will speak about her new book and answer questions at University Book Store on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The event is free but requires registration; go to www.ubookstore.com/events-calendar for details.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in Eastern Washington and attended the University of Washington. Washington is a state with almost no school choice. Why is that?

Washington’s been a blue state holdout. Conservatives have been passing school choice programs and changing the education system in red states (for three decades). It’s almost as if blue states and red states are starting to have dramatically different systems of public education. Even if you live in a place like Washington … it’s still extremely important to understand the direction the country’s education system is going in. And while Republicans have been extremely successful in red states, it’s being talked about in the presidential election, there have been efforts for federal vouchers over time and so it is an important issue for everyone. It is striking, it’s almost like abortion right now, how different things are depending on the political climate of the state you live in. Florida looks like where we might be headed nationally.

In Washington more students enrolled in private schools during the pandemic. Could that trend lead to school voucher bills?

Certainly the pandemic has opened up a tsunami of school choice legislation nationally. There have been a ton of expansions, a ton of new programs and there’s been a lot more proposals, but I don’t know that in a place like Washington if parental support would be enough.

Texas has over 700 charter schools. Why does Washington have so few — just 16?

Washington was a longtime holdout against charter schools. There was actually a legal fight over charter schools until fairly recently. So that’s part of it, but it depends a bit on the charter school law itself. In some states, the charter school laws are fairly restrictive.

The charter school movement is a little different than other school choice options like school vouchers because it has had bipartisan support. Multiple presidents support it from both parties.

Are school choice programs helping the people who they were once intended to help?

The push for universal (choice) is so new, there’s almost no research on how a universal program is working. But what is counterintuitive … is that the research that exists on the programs that were for low-income students or students with disabilities show test scores go down. You can’t actually really say this has been a successful thing for a lot of these families. There are probably successes on individual levels, where it works for one person’s child, but as a whole the research doesn’t really show a lot of great academic outcomes.

You would think some of that evidence would inform the policies but it’s not really about that right now. The research shows good parental satisfaction and some good life outcomes, in some cases, but for actual academics, it hasn’t turned out to be what a lot of people had hoped it would be. The conversation has shifted a lot toward values. And a lot toward religious education.

You write about this wave of school choice bills passed in 2021. Why then?

A large part of it is because of the pandemic, which … changed some parents’ views on what was going on in the schools and whether or not they were satisfied with their child’s options. It created a real political opportunity, especially for conservatives. Some school choice advocates quite openly talked about using this moment in time to win legislative victories for school choice and also push the culture war stuff to win choice victories. So it created a good political moment, but I think if you hadn’t also had decades of laying the groundwork … I don’t know that the pandemic alone would have been enough, but the combination of those things has been really powerful.

Do you think there is a fair way to hold school vouchers or educational savings accounts accountable?

Before this recent shift to universal vouchers and these more recent attacks on public education from Republicans, what existed before was really targeted programs for groups of students that were poorly served by the public school system and in communities where maybe the public school system had struggled. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, New Orleans. The very first modern voucher system was in Milwaukee. And that happened because of a bipartisan coalition.

I think there is a certain amount of room for these things when they are small and they’re focused on particular groups of students. It seems like it’s possible for that to coexist with a traditional public school system. But when you start talking about universal programs that have almost no accountability, that starts to look very different.

Do you think more states will pass bills like this?

I do, because of the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and some of the recent decisions (that) have pushed us in a direction where the ability to provide more state aid to private education is only going to grow. I think there’s a really good chance those programs will get bigger and spread for years to come. But I do think we are going to see little enclaves where it becomes this sort of fractured system of blue and red states having very different educational landscapes.

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As these school choice programs get bigger it might create its own backlash because some of the cost projections are going up, some of the enrollment is ballooning. I think that when you have headlines that say you can buy paddle boards and Disneyland tickets, it doesn’t reflect well on those programs. If you are a parent with a kid in a traditional Florida public school and your school doesn’t have the resources that you think it should have and then the state is paying for some of these other options, that could create a backlash. But I don’t know if it’ll create enough of a backlash to change things politically. So maybe the programs won’t go away but will be more tightly regulated.

Is there anything else you think could work well to reform public education?

I do think the school choice movement raises this important issue with public education in this country, which is that it so often is based on where you live and can you buy your way into a better-resourced school. There is privilege and resource hoarding. It’s one of the hardest things to address.