School Talk

Parents Value Safety. But Do Education Journalists? That Depends.

Education writers and journalists seem to jump at the chance to write about school safety and scared parents when the story is school shootings and student activism around gun control but so many fail to demonstrate that same passion for safety when parents cite school vouchers or the larger concept of school choice as the antidote to their fears.

This appears to be the case with the coverage of a new report released by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education by Arianna Prothero at EdWeek, Perry Stein at the Washington Post, and Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat. The report looked at the impacts of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program on students two years after they applied. All the headlines and story ledes predictably focus on the lower math scores and only make brief mention of the findings around safety. Something else of note is that although the actual name of the program is the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, Barnum of Chalkbeat does not refer to it by that name even once in his piece. He refers to it more generally as a “private school voucher program.”

The Associated Press version of the story only mentions math scores and completely ignores the safety findings. According to Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting delegate to Congress and a known opponent of vouchers, the study shows the Opportunity Scholarship Program is “ineffective.”  

“If Congress is interested in putting money in schools, it should be putting that money where the results show the money should be.” – Eleanor Holmes Norton

Either safety be damned for Norton or she has only seen the headlines and heard the sound bites about math scores.

In an honest and more sane world, there would be greater focus—and celebration—of a study that shows a 19.5 percentage point difference in parents’ perception of their child’s school being “very safe.” According to the report, 74.2 percent of parents of scholarship users rated their child’s school as “very safe” compared with 54.7 of parents of students who applied for, but were not awarded, a scholarship.

The math scores are ten points lower. The safety perception numbers are 20 points higher. Both data points matter.

Education writers know that parents prioritize school safety over standardized scores. They also know that low income parents are far more likely to believe that their assigned or zoned school is not safe enough. But somehow this isn’t the most important finding in the study at a time when school safety stories related to guns are published daily.

Instead, math scores rule the day.

One has to wonder if the fact that, by and large, most education writers have never experienced a dangerous school first hand—as a student or as a parent—contributes to their tendency to dismiss or minimize the significance of the increased feeling of safety parents and students report in the DC scholarship program. Or maybe it’s their politics. Either way, it’s a problem.

If the fundamental belief in the right to feel safe at school is truly the driver of the activism out of Parkland, the former Secretary of Education’s call for a school boycott, and the Democrats’ universal call for better and stronger gun legislation, why aren’t these same folks celebrating a program that actually allows parents and students to feel safer?

Progressives and high profile anti-reform folks are most known for the mantra that children are “more than a score” and that we must focus on the “whole child.” Well, that seems to be exactly what is happening for DC scholarship recipients and yet, somehow, vouchers remain the enemy in most progressive and Democratic party circles. And in the spirit of total cognitive dissonance, some of the folks who have spent countless hours dismissing the value of tests suddenly want to use them to say “I told you so” about a school choice program that exclusively serves low income children in Washington, DC.

But if scores are suddenly the end all be all for school choice critics, surely the recent study of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in North Carolina and its participants’ higher test scores will have them supporting vouchers in no time. Oh wait.

The truth is, children do deserve to feel—and be—safe in school and their parents deserve to feel confident that they are. It’s a fundamental expectation worthy of bipartisanship that should be free from partisan orthodoxy. Gun legislation may be what gets some parents there and opportunity scholarships (yes, vouchers!) may get others there. We owe it to parents to be open to both.


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