“The decisions we make today about education are going to affect these children’s children.” ~Roland Martin
School choice – the two words that spark heated discussions and often arguments all around the country. They are the two words that everyone seems to have an opinion. Usually, there is no middle ground — you are either for it or against it. No matter how compelling an argument you make, there are going to be folks who will fundamentally disagree with you. The amazing part about the words is they are all about options. They are all about not confining a person to one option.
On Sunday, December 2, The 74 with local sponsors such as EDFit and The Mind Trust hosted a town-hall centered around those two words. This event was notably different because it took the debate on school choice and focused it on the Black choice. Indianapolis, just like other cities around the country, is seeing the school choice debate play out and affect black students. Roland Martin hosted the town hall and heard from local education leaders such as Aleesia Johnson, Kelli Marshall, and Candace Pate. He also brought in leaders from other cities such as George Parker and Derrell Bradford.
The panel opened with a simple question from Roland Martin, “What is school choice to you?” George Parker described choice as an opportunity. He stated, “Without choice, there is not an opportunity to fulfill whatever is your dream may be.” Tindley Accelerated Schools CEO Kelli Marshall talked about the responsibility we have as educators to act on parents’ choice. “It is my responsibility to act upon that parents’ choice – to be held accountable to provide that parents with what they felt was the right choice for their child.” To me, school choice is about parents having the right to select what they believe is the best educational option for their child. No zip code, income bracket, or any other numbers should determine whether or not a child receives a quality education. School choice is about having a buffet of options for parents to select from; there is no one size fits all system.
Roland Martin shifted the conversation when he talked about how the conversation of school choice is convoluted because it is about money and power. He said some people are trying to game the system, and the conversations on school choice are about contracts, what is unionized and what is not. Instead, he says the conversation should be about the children and the outcomes. Derrell Bradford emphasized, “Ignoring local communities was a “blind spot” for ed reformer advocates.” George Parker told the story about how a little girl changed his mind. He made it simple. He said it was about common sense and putting children first, which changed his mind about education reform. This entire debate must be about what is best for children. Anytime the conversation shifts to anything else we lose sight and honestly, we get off topic. Children have to be the primary focus and have to be at the front of every topic. We cannot forget that this debate on school choice is serious and for many children, it is life or death because the education they are receiving will make or break the rest of their life.
About 20 minutes into the panel discussion, Roland shifted his questions and focus to Indianapolis specifically. He asked Aleesia Johnson about the Indianapolis Public Schools system. He first asked her to identify how many schools are in the system. He wanted to know how many schools would be considered charter and how many would be considered traditional. That question sparked the answer many Hoosiers, and those close to the IPS and charter world cannot answer. The word that makes many people connected to the education debate in Indianapolis cringe is, “innovation.” Why does it still make us cringe? It’s now roughly four years into the innovation era, and we still do not have an answer that makes sense to everyone. Aleesia Johnsons explained the best way she could, but she confused Roland Martin, a nationally recognized journalist. It is long overdue to define what “innovation” is in Indy because if a nationally recognized journalist and college educated people cannot understand what it is, how can we expect the parents in charge of deciding where their children should attend school understand what it is?
Roland pressed the issue of replicating IPS’ highest performing schools. When Aleesia Johnson mentioned the success of CFI (Center for Inquiry) as a model that was succeeding in the district, he wanted to know when the next school was opening. What Roland does not know is that it is not that easy to open another CFI. According to the IDOE Compass, CFI 84 is 82% white. CFI 70 is 53% white. CFI 2 is 70% white. Roland wanted to know which schools in the district were performing well for black children, and CFI would not be the example based on their demographics.
There were other hot-button topics such as the conversation on suspension specifically when it relates to black students. I know this is a topic that is always brought up when they are referring to Tindley. We do have high suspension rates. But what people don’t understand is that we have measures in place to ensure that when those students return from the suspension, they are allowed to make up instruction they lose. It is written in our handbook.
In reference to suspensions, Darrell Bradford said, “I’m inclined to believe that fewer suspensions are better, but suspensions are an overused tool for measuring school culture.” I will say this about suspension; out of school is a far better tool than in school suspension. Typically, in school suspension is ran by a non-licensed teacher who is a glorified and overpaid babysitter. We have to be careful with in school suspension because we put children already in trouble in an environment where they can get into even more trouble because of the lack of structure.
The 74 had Indianapolis buzzing with this event. As stated throughout the evening this must become a movement, not a moment. The question is, “What we do next?” It has to be more than getting great quotes for us to tweet and snapping pictures with Roland Martin for our Facebook page. We have to come together and continue these conversations and develop solutions. I vote for the part where we continue these tough conversations and work toward solutions. Let’s work on empowering parents to use this option of school choice effectively. Indianapolis, let’s make this evening a spark to light a movement.