By Kevin Palmer | For Watchdog.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The messy aftermath of a snowstorm didn’t deter hundreds of educators, activists, parents and policymakers from attending the kickoff of National School Choice Week at historic Union Station.
National School Choice Week, a 4-year-old event organized by a nonprofit of the same name, runs until Feb. 1 and will feature some 6,000 events scheduled in all 50 states, an increase from 3,600 last year.
“The mission of School Choice Week is to get parents to understand that they have more choices than they think,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Arizona superintendent of public instruction who now serves as a senior adviser to National School Choice Week.
Keegan acknowledged the political overtones of the event, but stressed that School Choice Week events are as much a celebration of existing policies as they are advocacy for reform.
“We’re trying to get the conversation above the fighting about what types of schools we prefer — public, private, public charter, religious, online or magnet — and focus on telling parents to find a school they want. And if they don’t have access to a school they want, we want them to advocate,” she said.
In the spirit of elevating the conversation on education policy above partisan fighting, the event seemed carefully planned to incorporate all ends of the political spectrum. Keegan, a Republican, gave a glowing introduction to Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., whom she described as an “incredible champion of public charter schools and advocate for equality for all people.”
Polis, a three-term congressman, previously served on the Colorado State Board of Education. He spoke about New America School, a charter school he founded that offers high school courses to immigrants ages 15-21. The school focuses on improving students’ English proficiency and helping them assimilate into America, and offers flexible day and night classes to accommodate working students.
“We all know an example of what works and what doesn’t work,” Polis said of school choice. “We need the courage to change what doesn’t work.”
Democratic political strategist and Fox News contributor Joe Trippi spoke about his mother’s fight to enroll Trippi and his siblings in an out-of-district school, fearing the gang culture, violent reputation and low graduation rate of their neighborhood’s assigned school.
Trippi’s mother was successful, in part, because, “she went in and fought like crazy … and the school board might have been afraid that she was actually crazy.”
“What happened to all those other kids, though?” Trippi wondered. “Why didn’t they have a choice? What could my future have been if my mom — who legally shouldn’t have had a choice herself — hadn’t fought for me?”
The event concluded with personal testimony from three D.C. high school students, each of whom are enrolled in one of the city’s charter or magnet schools.
Daniel Spruill, a senior from Anacostia, said of his parents’ decision to send him to Friendship Collegiate Academy instead of his zoned school, Anacostia High, “It has changed my entire life. I’m dually enrolled at (the University of the District of Columbia), I’ve taken summer courses at Stanford and I’m a student member of the D.C. State Board of Education. Anacostia has a culture of violence … but my school took me away from that and instilled me with their values.”
“This wasn’t a choice between two schools — it was between two paths for my life,” he said.
“Without school choice, where would I be today?”
From now until Feb. 1, that’s the question National School Choice Week will be posing throughout the country.