The nation’s biggest school choice party will grow eight times bigger this year with thousands of events initiated and attended by tens of thousands of students, parents, teachers, and community leaders, said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week.
“You can have a lot of whitepapers and research and polls and studies done, and they are very important, but if you don’t have regular people involved in this fight—having their voices heard at public events, rallies, town hall meetings—you’ll never have change,” he said.
During National School Choice Week (NSCW), January 27 to February 2, grassroots organizers will celebrate choice at some 3,500 events they designed. Schools that normally require uniforms are allowing students to choose their clothing. Others are holding pizza parties and balloon launches. Miami activists are planning a festival. Groups in various states are holding rallies, screening movies, and hosting speakers.
Campanella expects 7,500 attendees at the kickoff in Phoenix, Arizona.
The week has grown exponentially particularly because the organization has partnered with more schools, he said.
In 2012, media figures such as comedian Bill Cosby and actor Sacha Baron Cohen expressed their support for NSCW, as did 28 state legislatures and governors. The organization expects similar public acknowledgements this year, partly because it’s a “big tent” event open to “anybody who believes in expanding access to high quality choices for kids,” Campanella said: “People in the progressive movement and [others in] the Tea Party will join in the same event, and I don’t think there’s any other issue where they would come together.”
School Choice Express
This year, NSCW activists commissioned a vintage train car for a whistle-stop tour of 14 cities, starting in Los Angeles and concluding in New York City. The tour aims to connect school choice with U.S. history, Campanella said—for decades, U.S. political candidates, suffragettes, and civil rights leaders conducted whistle-stop tours to spread their messages and generate support.
The tour aims to tie school choice to the civil rights and suffragette eras, when activists conducted whistle stop tours to promote equal rights.
"School Choice really is the single most important and impactful issue we face as a country.
Education quality has special significance to minorities and the poor, whom studies have repeatedly shown  are more likely to live in neighborhoods where their children are required to attend low-achieving and unsafe public schools.
“We wanted to find an interesting way to reach people and thought, ‘What has been done in the past to get the attention of a whole nation?’” Campanella said. “Why don’t we truly treat school choice as a civil rights and civil liberties issue, and communicate our message about school choice just as [similar messages were communicated] in struggles in the past?”
U.S. politicians and movement builders used whistle-stop tours because rail was the fastest way to travel the country until air travel became viable in the 1950s, notes Nicholas Fry, curator of the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library. President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was the first to use air travel extensively, and even then most people never flew.
“Whistle stop tours developed as the railways were the only way of getting around, and lasted beyond that because they were a very effective form of campaigning,” said railroad historian Christian Wolmar.
College football teams would take trains to away games, circuses had their own cars, and organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chartered trains to visit parishioners and conduct affairs. Since that time, he said, whistle-stop tours have often been chartered for their nostalgia and symbolism.
President Barack Obama, for example, conducted a short whistle-stop tour to his inauguration to mimic President Lincoln’s.
“Today [presidential candidates] fly 35,000 feet in the air, and you don’t have any contact with them,” observed Bob Withers, author of The President Travels by Train. Fry called it “the book on presidential rail travel.”
“When they speak on television it’s usually off a teleprompter, but when they came through on a campaign train and stopped in your town you could see the man personally and hear what he had to say,” Withers continued. “Sometimes he’d make a mistake and you’d know he was human instead of a machine spouting off talking points.”
In-person communication is a benefit of the tour, Campanella said.
“There are so many things competing for people’s attention, and a desire to go high-tech in the way we reach folks, that I think people start to tune out a lot of information,” he said, as his cell phone buzzed.
People consistently say education is important, he noted, but its stories are often less visual, immediate, and flashy and so receive less public discussion. NSCW gives people an “opportunity to talk about the single most important issue facing our country while also having fun and getting a chance to talk with people we wouldn’t otherwise talk with,” he said.
To find a National School Choice Week event near you, visit www.schoolchoiceweek.com/events .
School Choice Whistle-Stop Tour Cities
- Los Angeles
- Kansas City
- South Bend
- New York City
Image courtesy of Northern Sky Rail Charters.