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Jul 10, 2017
Presented by
Denisha Merriweather

Poor students deserve just as good an education as rich students, right? So why are so many stuck in failing public schools? Denisha Merriweather, who benefited from school vouchers, explains the problem and the solution.

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Many public schools serve more as warehouses for keeping kids off the street than places of education. That’s why we need school choice. 

  • School choice advocate Denisha Merriweather on the experience of being in a “warehouse” style school, filled with apathetic students and teachers: “I remember being puzzled and angry because I didn’t understand the lessons being taught. I remember wanting to ask my teacher to repeat herself, but I got the sense that she didn’t want to help me understand.”View Source
  • Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson on his research findings on school choice: “[W]e find that the low-income families who participated in our studies tell us that the discipline is much better. There's less fighting. There's less cheating. There's less racial conflict. There's more tolerance for children from other backgrounds.”View Source
  • WATCH: Denisha Merriweather on the impact of school choice.View Source
  • Related Reading: “The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools” – William G. Howell, Paul E. PetersonView Source

School choice is more important than ever. Studies show that both violence and drug use are on the rise in our public schools. 

  • Public schools have become increasingly more dangerous in recent years. Non-fatal incidents of crime are on the rise in America’s public schools, with many schools adding cameras and armed security guards, turning what should be an educational environment into what feels like a penitentiary.View Source
  • The 2010-2011 school year saw 31 violent deaths, and that number increased to 48 school-associated deaths in 2013-2014.View Source
  • Drugs are also rampant. 90% of students in a recent survey reported knowing classmates who consumed drugs, alcohol, or tobacco during school hours.View Source
  • 10 percent of public school teachers were threatened with violence in the 2011-2012 school year, and that percentage has been on the rise since 2003-2004.View Source
  • Related Reading: “Learning from School Choice” – Paul E. PetersonView Source

The research is clear: School choice improves students’ test scores and graduation rates. The more choice, the more improvement. 

  • In Washington D.C., students who used a school voucher program were 21 percent more likely to graduate high school.View Source
  • In 2003, there were only 22 charter schools in New York City. In 2004, a school choice program was started and by 2012, there were over 150 charter schools. Graduation rates improved 18%, a growth rate nearly twice other large districts in New York State.View Source
  • A recent study found that students in Milwaukee’s school choice program—the oldest one in the country—scored on average 2.8 points higher on the ACT than public school students.View Source
  • In Florida, the voucher program and the competition it created for student participation led to a 9.3-point improvement on FCAT math scores and 10.1-point improvement on FCAT reading scores.View Source

How do we fight the problem of students’ “chronic disengagement”? Smaller classes, more personal education—in other words, school choice. 

  • 40% of all high school students in America are “chronically disengaged.” The recommendation of the National Research Council? Break up large schools into smaller ones that foster personal relationships between teachers and students—in other words, try to imitate private schools.View Source
  • More school choice means parents can send their kids to schools that match their values and their child’s personal situation.View Source
  • Personalized attention and mentors have proven to be able to change students’ trajectories and help them succeed.View Source
  • Related reading: “Why America Needs School Choice” – Jay P GreeneView Source

When education is a choice, both the school and the students have a reason to buy in. Public school is compulsory, encouraging apathy.

  • More school choice means parents can send their kids to schools that match their values and their child’s personal situation. When schools are chosen and not forced on parents, it increases buy-in and creates a better learning environment.View Source
  • When students are customers, the school has a vested interest in the student’s progress and well-being, often resulting in more personalized attention and emphasis on mentorship, which can help students succeed.View Source
  • Related Reading: “Learning from School Choice” – Paul E. PetersonView Source

Studies show that private and charter schools are significantly more effective than public schools at dealing with school discipline.

  • Alternatives to public education are already doing far better at combating discipline problems. Charter school teachers report significantly less violence than their public school counterparts.View Source
  • Private schools are likewise less violent than public schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, 10 percent of public schools teachers reported being threatened with violence, compared to 3 percent of private school teachers.View Source
  • Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson on his research findings on school choice: “[W]e find that the low-income families who participated in our studies tell us that the discipline is much better. There's less fighting. There's less cheating. There's less racial conflict. There's more tolerance for children from other backgrounds.”View Source
  • Related Reading: “The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools” – William G. Howell, Paul E. PetersonView Source

Many public schools must focus so much on policing violence and drugs that they cannot focus on the real priority: educating students.

  • The 2010-2011 school year saw 31 violent deaths, and that number increased to 48 school-associated deaths in 2013-2014.View Source
  • Non-fatal incidents of crime are on the rise in America’s public schools, with many schools adding cameras and armed security guards, turning what should be an educational environment into what feels likes a penitentiary.View Source
  • Drugs are also rampant. 90% of students in a recent survey reported knowing classmates who consumed drugs, alcohol, or tobacco during school hours.View Source
  • 10 percent of public school teachers were threatened with violence in the 2011-2012 school year, and that percentage has been on the rise since 2003-2004.View Source

School choice allows parents who live in undervalued neighborhoods to pick the school that works best for their children.

  • Research by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that charter schools in urban areas provide the equivalent of 40 additional days of math instruction to their students, and 28 additional days of reading instruction.View Source
  • School choice reform can have a particularly strong and positive effect on students living in poverty.View Source
  • Washington D.C. spends $29,409 per student. This is approximately three times more money than the voucher program costs per student—yet voucher students have better performance records and higher graduation rates.View Source
  • WATCH: Tax Credits ExplainedView Source
  • Related Reading: Learning from School Choice – Paul E. PetersonView Source

Public schools aren’t the answer for everyone. They weren’t the answer for me. Schools in my neighborhood in Jacksonville, FL functioned less as places of learning and more as warehouses to keep kids off the street. I know ­­­­­­­­– I was one of those kids. 

I don’t blame teachers, or parents. I’m not interested in blaming anybody. I’m only interested in making things better. And the only way to do that is to give parents and students a choice. If a student can’t get the education they need at their public school, there has to be an alternative. 

Thankfully, there was for me. 

My early years in my Jacksonville school were not a success, to put it mildly. I seldom understood the lesson. I was often confused and frustrated. I’d ask my teachers questions, but it seemed to me that this just annoyed them. So, I stopped asking questions and I withdrew into myself. I failed third grade — twice. Fourth and fifth weren’t much better. I lashed out by getting into fights with my classmates. D’s and F’s filled my report card. I was going nowhere. I was just another black kid in the warehouse. 

But fortunately for me, my life changed the summer before sixth grade. I went to live with my godmother. She had one overriding thought: to get me into a better school. A good education, she knew, was the only way to get out of the hole I had dug myself into. She didn’t have any more money than my family did, but she had a plan. That was worth a lot. She knew about another school – a private school. 

Using a tax-credit scholarship – you can call it a voucher – she enrolled me at Esprit de Corps Center for Learning. Esprit demands excellence from its students. It teaches them to be warriors for knowledge and for good values. The teachers at Esprit were invested in my success. They took the time to figure out why learning was so difficult for me, and they tailored their instruction to my learning style. 

Sound elite? It is. Sound expensive? It’s not. In fact, Esprit actually spends less money per student than the public school I had attended. 

Instead of dreading my classes, I began to look forward to them. Instead of fistfights, I began doing community service work. I even earned the National Police Athletic League’s Girl of the Year award in 2009. When it was time for me to apply for college, Esprit even helped me to research scholarships and apply for waivers so that I could take my college entrance tests for free. 

On June 5, 2010, I graduated from Esprit de Corps with honors, becoming the first member of my immediate family to earn a high school diploma, and eventually the first to earn a college degree, and then a Master’s. Without school choice, none of this would have been possible.

Why is it so hard to grasp? Why are so many people so resistant to children and parents having a choice of schools? The system, especially for economically disadvantaged kids, is broken. I’ve seen it up close. And I’ve seen what happens when it works better – when there is choice.  School choice allows parents who live in undervalued neighborhoods to pick the school that best works for their children. 

Of course, the opponents of school choice – the politicians and the teachers’ unions who profit off of keeping poor black kids trapped in the warehouse – say it takes money away from students who need it the most. But does anybody believe that money is the problem? Washington DC, for example, spends over $20,000 per student. 

We don’t need any more money. We need more choice. Let’s challenge public schools to compete on quality. Only competition breeds excellence.

Prosperous parents can choose where to send their kids to school: public, private, or charter – wherever they have the best chance to succeed. Why shouldn’t all parents have that choice? We have the money to make it happen. We just need the will. 

None of us deserve to be imprisoned by our ZIP codes. Education is the only way out of generational poverty. I’m a living example. Let’s help redefine public education to make it work for everybody. There’s only one way to do that: school choice. What are we waiting for?

I’m Denisha Merriweather for Prager University.

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