Tom On Point: ‘Stubborn facts’ about choice

Thomas J. Gentzel

Public schools are an institution but they are not monolithic. They come in various shapes and sizes, and offer a range of services to all children who attend, whether in person or online. “Well, of course they do,” you’re likely to say if you are a local school board member, superintendent, administrator, or teacher. Those who are responsible for leading and operating the public education system know all of that. If only the public did, too.

The debate over school choice may vary over time or from place to place, but a recurring argument for tuition voucher, tax credit, and other similar proposals has been that students and parents need access to more options. “One size does not fit all” proponents will argue. They’re right, of course, which is why public schools are not one size, and frankly haven’t been for years.

Today’s public schools offer programs and services designed to address the needs of individual students, to help them pursue their interests, and to provide the assistance essential for their success. Those who would divert public funds to private schools conveniently overlook this impressive track record, choosing instead to create an image of students trapped in uniform, tradition-bound schools.

Ignoring reality does not make it go away. To quote John Adams, who said, as a young lawyer, arguing a case in court: “Facts are stubborn things.”

NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) recently examined options in public schools. As Patte Barth, the director of CPE, notes in her column on Page 58, the facts about existing public school choice are compelling. The system governed by school boards and funded by taxpayers provides the opportunity for many students to select courses and even the school they will attend, to participate in a wide range of academic and extracurricular programs, and to benefit from numerous support services such as after-school tutoring, to cite just one example.

Moreover, the CPE report makes a powerful point about how much more frequently all of this happens in the public versus the private sector. In many cases, such as in Advanced Placement and Gifted/Honors programs, it’s not even close. Even public schools with the fewest choices, and those with the highest poverty, generally offer more options to students than private schools do. Add to all of this the efforts in many school districts to personalize instruction, to incorporate deeper learning into classroom teaching, and to ensure that students graduate with the skills needed to be successful in postsecondary education and in their careers, and you have a picture of the incredible breadth and scope of public education in America today.

These developments are producing impressive outcomes. Public schools have accomplished something that might have been considered virtually impossible years ago: educating students to higher levels, with more rigorous standards, while at the same time graduating far more of them than ever before. Much work remains to be done, but the reality is that public education is achieving outstanding results. These “stubborn facts” deserve more attention, especially considering the concerted, well-orchestrated effort being made to redirect funds from public to private schools in the name of “choice.”

Through our Stand Up 4 Public Schools campaign, NSBA is shining a bright light on these achievements and on the programs, options, and opportunities provided by public schools across the country. We are doing so using the words of students and educators themselves. We encourage you to share your district’s successes. Please submit them at We have a great story; it’s time for all of us to tell it.

Tom Gentzel

Thomas J. Gentzel ( is executive director and CEO of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA


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