I Teach In a Traditional Public School and I Support School Choice

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues

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I’m a traditional public school teacher (and union rep), and I support school choice. As a right-leaning independent with a high concentration of libertarianism running through my veins, I default to political positions that tilt the balance of power toward the individual. Accordingly, I support educational policies that juice up the status of my loving family, my school, my school district, and the state, in that order.

In practice, that means that I want to make it as easy as possible for a local contractor to send his son – a child negotiating the challenges of autism – to a charter school, given its endearing (his word) personal attention to the whole family. It also means I want that charter school to be as unfettered as possible by state policies so that it can keep doing what it’s doing.

Furthermore, if the contractor can use some money from Arizona’s voucher program* to ease his child’s path, I hope he gets it. In fact, regarding his son’s education and well-being, I bet the contractor can create a higher marginal utility for each additional voucher dollar than can the public education system.

Detailed arguments in favor of various school choice policies – including rebuttals to school choice opponents – merit their own posts, which will follow. But here I want to offer two general points.

On the top shelf of our home office closet sit a couple hundred vinyl albums I bought throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Nowadays, the only time I ever take down a record is to use my USB turntable to transfer the music to my computer so that I can upload it to my phone and stream it wirelessly to my car’s speakers.

So the first point is that like someone deciding what to do with decades of adored, but outdated music technology, traditional public school advocates have two choices. They can cling to the old way and attack the taste the public is developing for more options in how the nation’s children are educated; or, they can find and adopt the means to coexist with charter schools, private schools, home-schooling, and vouchers.

If they choose the former, they could well accelerate the death of traditional public schools. Alternatively, choosing the latter could well bring about an updated and sustainable rebirth of traditional public schools.

The second point is that aficionados of political debates know they come in two flavors: hate-filled and reason-filled. And neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on either.

Bitterness, name-calling, mischaracterization, and superiority season hate-based arguments. Served from the right, you hear how the totalitarian left seeks to program our youth’s every thought and action. A favorite target is teachers unions, who with threats of withholding their massive donations, blackmail lawmakers into toeing the line.

Served from the left, you hear how the racist, intolerant right seeks only to make the rich richer, deny educational equity to the poor and marginalized, and exacerbate the hemorrhaging of teachers leaving the profession. A favorite target is dark money secretly funding the campaigns and causes of the dog-whistling fascists.

Arguing from hatred works on the mind like fatty, salty, and sugary fast food works on the body. It tastes good, excites all the pleasure-reward seeking chemicals in our brains, creates an insatiable appetite, and then kills you.

Arguing from reason works like a healthy meal after a hard workout. It tastes good, satisfies, and helps you live longer. The problem is that both the workout and the food prep take effort and time. So, pulling up to a drive-through for a double bacon cheeseburger, large fries, and king-size drink too often carries the day.

Recently, two colleagues illustrated both means of argument in the same conversation. They were lamenting some recent school choice decisions by Arizona’s legislature. I said that I actually supported most school choice policies.

I can’t quote the conversation that followed directly, but I think a fair summary would go something like this: Trying to express the need to adapt to changing times, I asked when was the last time they listened to a vinyl album. That was a bad move because they both said the previous evening. It was pretty funny and we all laughed.

Then, one declared that I must be in favor of teachers losing their pensions, made some other points in that same vein, and walked away.

The other colleague, concerned for our most vulnerable students, asked if I really thought school choice would improve education. I said that I didn’t know, in the long-term, what would happen, nor does anyone else, but I thought the best hope lay in school choice. I related the contractor’s story and tried to express that I wanted the state to enable him to make the decisions for his own vulnerable child.

I mentioned I would be posting a blog with my opinions on the matter, and my colleague looked forward to it.

Well, here it is. I hope my colleagues can find the time to comment with their views and offer any corrections to my recounting of our brief exchange of opposing views.

In the meantime, I’ll be refining my thoughts on vouchers. Stay tuned.

*To find out more about vouchers in Arizona, called Empowerment Scholarships, go here, here, here, here, and here. To read other Stories from School Arizona arguments against the vouchers, go here and here.



I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 4

  1. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    I really like that you are willing to offer an alternative perspective, and that you always do it with integrity and reason!

    I think that at my core, I also support the idea of school choice. I think we have a long way to go to write and promote policies that would create an equitable system based on school choice, which I think is essential if we are going to give up the idea of the traditional neighborhood public school (or include it as one choice among many). However, our public schools are not equitable either.

    If I could feel like school choice was not being driven by dark money and profit mongers, but was actually a reasonable conversation communities and states were having as to how to best serve families, I could go there. Unfortunately, the term “school choice” is tainted and useless for me at this point, and for so many others, just at “public school” and “teacher union” are tainted for the right. It’s really too bad.

  2. Scott Weiler

    I like your argument. I appreciate hearing a pro-voucher opinion from a teacher. Because at the heart of it, I know you have student’s best interest at heart.
    I disagree completely.
    I first object that the premise of public schools are the old way while charter or private schools are the new way. I am seeing charter schools literally called “traditional” schools. Private schools are almost stereo typically considered archaic in their methodology.
    So why do public schools teach in the “old way”? My guess is that old legislatures and governors have old ideas of what schools can do and how to measure them. Public schools are therefore beholden to the policies set by government. I saw when charters came along, that they were given a chance to help kids that couldn’t succeed in public schools. And it was good, but then charters went after the successful kids. They dropped the tough ones, leaving them in the public schools. Private never had any difficulty because they had their own rules and couldn’t be evaluated and never had to take a kid they didn’t want.
    It is a rigged game and of course private and charter look better because of it.
    Public schools still get money for having kids enrolled. While having multiple districts in a town like Tucson can be tough, we have natural competition. TUSD is trying to get Amphitheater kids, and Amphitheater wants Flowing Wells kids. Large districts like Clark County (Las Vegas) have made Magnet schools which compete for student interest. They have a lot of innovation. And public schools could if freed from restraints.
    I normally like to give sources, so forgive me for make some assertions without support. But I saw recently how vouchers were failing in DC, mostly for the most vulnerable students. Vouchers failed in Michigan.
    I see a stacked game and the players that have the favor aren’t showing any better performance than the ones hindered. But vouchers will hurt the game for public schools further as they fight for students and look worse with less money.
    I hear the qualms about how we take tax money and give it to bureaucrats. But how is it better to give it to corporations with profit motives? To stockholders?
    I would welcome a further discussion.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thanks for your comments, Scott. Let me try to address each one. First of all, my argument isn’t that public schools teach in a old way, and charters and privates teach in a new way. There is plenty of innovative teaching all over the place – as you yourself illustrate with your robotics. This year, I’ve changed my approach to teaching mathematics greatly. I’m speaking more in systemic terms. To the extent that traditional public school advocates resist the public’s desire for more choice and more direct power to make their own decisions, we hasten the demise of public schools. It’s like the public’s desire to have more control of media. Once we got a taste of being active participants in what content we consume (as well as producers) of content. Mass media had to adapt or die. Maybe you’ve followed what’s going on at ESPN, for example. I don’t know your music listen habits, but I bet you’re more likely do download some favorite songs and create your own playlists than buy an album. I’m not guessing that because I think I know you so well, but because that’s the safest bet to guess about anyone.

      Regarding vouchers, Washington DC has had mixed success. Most students using vouchers are minority and poor and wanted to get away from the violence and condition of their traditional schools. Many ended up graduating and going on to college. There have been recent reports that their math scores have dropped, and that’s produced a raft a headlines claiming that’s iron-clad proof of the failure of vouchers. But there are at least two ways in which this argument itself fails. First, almost every teacher I know loudly proclaims that standardized test scores are a lousy means to judge schools or teachers. But then test scores are the first thing they turn to for evidence that supports their opposition to school choice. They never talk about graduation rates, scholarships, or other data. Second, it seems patronizing for voucher opponents to claim they care most about our most vulnerable communities, but then would deny those same communitites the autonomy and means to choose for themselves what’s best. Maybe they’d much prefer their children use an “Opportunity Scholarship” and know their children will be physically safe than return them to their public school where their math score may be four points higher, but they run a higher risk of being assaulted.

      Michigan doesn’t have vouchers, but mostly through DeVoss’s work traditional public schools are hemorrhaging students to charters. Again, that represents parents’ and students’ choice, considering the whole education picture and preferring to leave. Besides recent data suggest that particularly in urban Detroit, charters are outperforming traditionals, although not by much. Links to my sources about Detroit are in this post – http://bit.ly/2jhhCbF.

      Charter schools are options for the best and most troubled students. The one I mention in my post has a large and beautiful campus. But every year we receive troubled students who have given smaller charters a try and come back to traditionals, and some of our troubled students leave to go to a charter and we don’t see them again.

      Yep, there’s a lot of money involved, and profit motive drives plenty of charter and private school interests. But our standardized test Common Core culture is also driven by the profit motive of testing companies. I don’t know where you stand on the Common Core, but I do know plenty who love it and then attack vouchers advocates as being stooges of big business, when to me, they are, too.

      I have qualms about giving money to bureaucrats and corporations, but not about giving families an option to choose between public schools (bureaucratic control) and vouchers (profit motive) and decide for themselves which educates their children better.

      Just so you know, TUSD has magnet schools. I teach at one, but do to outside bureaucrats we’ll lose our magnet status next year and hundreds of Latinos may not be able to attend the traditional public school they prefer. I wonder how many will opt for a charter. (Right now, our projection is for very little loss, if the the district can provide transportation to them, we should be ok.) I wrote about this in Ok, Special Master You Name the Latino Students Shouldn’t Welcome (http://bit.ly/2oJijPr).

      I’d love to hear back from you, and in a day or two will post a piece addressing the argument that even with vouchers poor families can’t pay private school tuition.

  3. rochelle54215

    Traditional school is more useful to get better education for a children. As a result there are so many parents are like to admit their child in renowned institute. So i like this advice from him.

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