Recently, I spoke at Demme Learning’s #TrustParents School Choice Rally. Here is a summary of my speech. A video the speech is embedded at the end of this post.
At the heart of my presentation is the concept of trusting parents. This theme of trusting parents is at the heart of Demme Learning’s company culture and I the foundation for a just education system.
So what exactly is school choice?
— Ethan Demme (@EthanDemme) January 29, 2015
School choice also means educating parents about the education options available to them and removing financial and structural barriers in order to allow parents to choose the best option for their kids.
Growing up I had the opportunity – due to my parents choice – and the privilege of being educated at home. I was what many would call an energetic child and enjoyed activities such as hitting things, throwing things and breaking things. Sometimes those things were my siblings – sorry Isaac for that tooth. I even managed to play hooky from homeschool, which can be difficult. My parents taught me to read, they taught me history, science, math and more importantly they taught me the value of knowledge and instilled in me a lifelong love of learning. And because of their dedication and hard-work, I am standing here today. I successfully graduated from high school at the top of my class and voted myself most likely to succeed (I was also the bottom of my class – a class of one). After high school I attended college and found that the choices my parents had made on my behalf had prepared me well for higher education.
I am thankful for my parents ability to make the choices they did for me and for my education but unfortunately many students don’t have the opportunity that I did. Injustice in our current system has kept many students from receiving the high quality education that they deserve. Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, “For schools, seek justice.” In this column, he highlighted the problem of under-funded schools. He said,
“until some glaring funding injustices are fixed, in Philadelphia and in many school systems around the country, we will never live up to our nation’s aspirational promises of justice.”
The fact is that our funding formulas are creating class systems where your zip code becomes a predictor of success and that is not a just education system.
Back in November, I attended the National Summit on Education Reform. One of the presentations was a panel featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator Marco Rubio. During the presentation, Rice identified “a high quality education for every child” as the current civil rights struggle of our nation. Senator Rubio agreed and commented that “it is immoral and outrageous” that poverty should prevent school choice. In his words, “there is no equality of opportunity if a parent cannot put their kids in the school of their choice and the best environment possible because they don’t make enough money.” At the same event, the panel’s moderator, Juan Williams, asked a question that many have asked and continue to ask: can we trust parents to make these education decisions for their kids? Condoleezza Rice responded quickly to that question with the true statement: “it is such a mistaken impression that poor parents either don’t care or don’t know what is best for their kids.” Rice then mentioned the “normal system” of a zip-code determining the quality of education of a child is bad and she says, “I know what that movie looks like” adding that instead, she would sooner “trust the parent or an advocate for the child.”
At Demme Learning, we also believe in trusting parents. At our last company summit, I shared that our primary customer is the parent: and it’s how we judge success. We sell products to homeschool parents, to charter schools, to private schools and to public schools but regardless of who purchases our product, the ultimate customer is the parent: they’re the ones who judge whether or not we are doing a good job. To explain a little bit of why we have incorporated this principle into our company culture, I want to share briefly a story about homeschooling from my family’s perspective. Back in the early 1980s, my parents were one of the first pioneering families in America. In those early days, homeschooling was barely legal or illegal depending on where you lived and who was interpreting the law. My dad, Steve Demme, started lobbying in Georgia, connecting people and working to get the laws changed. My dad’s example taught me a powerful lesson:
We’re here because school choice is a human right.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in the first International Congress on Home Education in Germany (where homeschooling is currently illegal) and was one of the signers of the Berlin Declaration calling for the recognition of the rights of parents to choose how and where their children are educated.
While homeschooling may not be the first thing you think of when you think of injustice in education, it is one of its fundamental elements. In order for someone to have the ability to realize their potential in society, the prior right of their parents to choose the kind of education they receive is of utmost importance. This is why this parental right is enshrined in Article 26 part 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” These human rights are highlighted in both our country’s founding documents as well as documents from around the world, such as the UN declaration of human rights.
So why does this matter?
Not every parent wants their child to be enrolled in a public school that they see is failing but we should trust them to choose an alternative. Not every parent can or wants to homeschool their children. They may be a single parent who has to work two jobs in order to put food on the table and we should trust them to choose an alternative. Not every parent can or wants to put their child in a local private school and we should trust them to choose an alternative. But right now we have a system that only trusts parents if they have the money and connections to choose.
As Condoleezza Rice pointed out, “We already have an opt-out system – school choice for those who can afford it. Give parents who otherwise don’t have the means, a chance to send their children to a school that might work better for them. Now a common objection (and fear) is that promoting school choice would mean taking money away from public schools. You’ll recall how at the beginning of my speech, I spoke about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s powerful observation that under-funded schools are symptomatic of systematic injustice. So could promoting school choice deepen that injustice? It could which is why we do need to continue to work towards a more equitable funding formula but it doesn’t mean that we should lock kids into failing schools while our legislature tries to figure that out. Funding also depends on how you look at it. Marco Rubio got to the heart of the matter when he said, “the money doesn’t belong to the schools, it belongs to the kids.”
We shouldn’t be forcing all parents to homeschool and neither should we force them to public school. Parents shouldn’t be locked into any one education option for their children but should be empowered to make decisions that are personalized to the needs of each child.
— Ethan Demme (@EthanDemme) January 29, 2015
As research continues to show, the more parents exercise their rights and actively engage in their children’s education, the more children learn and get the ability to live their potential in society.
The simple truth is that parents are the key to a successful education. We should allow parents to make choices regarding their child’s education; We should equip parents with tools and skills to engage in their child’s academic development; We should encourage them to be more involved in their children’s learning. We need to trust parents.