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This Toxic Standards Fight Isn’t Helping Students

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Kevin P. Chavous, Education Week

The late, noted civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer summed it up best when she said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Although she was voicing her discontent with racial inequality in Mississippi nearly five decades ago, I can relate to her sentiment today when I think about the recent debate within the education reform community concerning the Common Core State Standards. We reformers are in this battle to change the status quo, to focus on students and results, rather than systems and processes.

I respect education policy debate and discussion, but the division and bickering around the standards has me “sick and tired.” Not only are we embroiled in a growing verbal death match, but partisan politics has once again taken precedence over doing what’s right for kids. I see this firsthand as I travel from state to state, discussing education reform and the importance of educational choice with legislators and local community leaders. Increasingly, where one stands on the common-core debate is a new political litmus test akin to one’s political party bona fides.

But what has me even more sick and tired is knowing that while the reformers are debating the debate about our kids’ futures, we continue to lose kids because far too many schools don’t work for them. Every 26 seconds, a child drops out of school in our country. Setting aside the debate for a moment, even if the common core is embraced wholeheartedly across the United States, it is a long-term solution. What are we doing in the short term? What are we doing about those kids who need quality schools today?

These are the questions parents like Amanda Pickett of Racine, Wis., are asking. Ms. Pickett watched as her children struggled in their assigned public school. One of her children, Marcus, stuttered. He struggled with reading and writing. His mother felt helpless as she watched him fall behind. After she obtained a scholarship to send Marcus to a school of her choice, his reading improved, and he no longer fears going to school.

Betty Williams, a New Orleans mother has a similar story. Her daughter, Ahshiya, struggled in her traditional public school and cried every morning. Ahshiya could not keep up with her peers, and her teachers planned to hold her back a year. Ms. Williams refused to accept this. The family qualified for the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which made it possible for Ahshiya to enroll in a private school. Today, Ms. Williams’ 10-year-old daughter can read. She excels in her English class, and even though she struggles in math, the teachers at her new private school give her the attention she needs.

“Even as education reformers debate the debate, choice provides an immediate and positive solution.”

These stories are not unique. They’re found in every state—18 of them, plus the District of Columbia—where educational choice programs are flourishing. They demonstrate the transformational power of choice, and the immediate impact of a child’s access to an educational environment that is better suited to his or her needs. Parents know that choice is the answer to giving their children a quality education, and the demand for it is as high as ever.

In 2013, over 308,000 children nationwide took part in a publicly funded private-school-choice program—a 25 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Alliance for School Choice, where I am executive counsel. This is the largest single-year enrollment growth, and programs continue to expand across the country.

When I chaired the education committee of Washington’s city council, I saw many proposed school transformation plans. While they were well intended, they were all plans that stretched out for years, sometimes as many as eight. That’s utterly unacceptable for children in need of help yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The common core has been implemented in the public schools of Washington. And while this may be a step forward in raising the education standards for the children in the nation’s capital, it will take a while for it to have a significant impact. As just one example of the success of a city’s voucher program, students enrolled in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are graduating at a rate that is 30 percentage points higher than that of students who attend the city’s regular public schools.

That’s why choice matters when it comes to how we educate our children. Even as education reformers debate the debate, choice provides an immediate and positive solution. While the adults around the country continue to bicker about the standards, who’s looking out for the children teetering on the brink of dropping out of school?

Parents and children nationwide are in dire need of high-quality education opportunities. Children like Marcus and Ahshiya and their families, who were given the opportunity to select the schools of their choice, do not necessarily care if the common core is implemented in those schools or not. They just know that they have been given a life-changing opportunity and the tools to succeed.

Today, we need to put a renewed focus on the parents and children searching for immediate opportunities to exercise educational choice. Sure, classroom accountability and rigorous standards matter, as does the outcome of the common-core discussion. But, I fear that political debating just for the sake of debate will only further divide communities and stall the momentum that has been building over the past several years. The end result only does harm to the kids we say we are serving.

When I wrote about the common-core debate last year in an essay for the Huffington Post, I said my fear was that after all the blood had been shed, there would be limited energy and vigor left for changing the conditions that block our kids from receiving quality educations. Since then, the standards debate has become even more hostile and the politics associated with it are toxic. Look at the legislative fights in Indiana, Oklahoma, New York, and Louisiana.

So now I challenge those on both sides of the standards debate to answer one simple question: What do you propose we do to educate kids in bad schools today? Let’s hope we all still have the energy to take that on.