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The illusions of school choice

When I was in junior high school in Detroit (long before its current meltdown), my classmates and I were taken to a wealthy suburban public high school for an “exchange visit.”  We were stunned to see carpeted, well-stocked libraries; working restrooms with warm water and hand towels; real science laboratories; and a gym building with indoor track and swimming pool. We were never told what the purpose of the trip was, but its net effect on our young minds was to confirm that we were worth—less than rich people’s children.

My hard-working, middle-class parents, like millions of American families, depended on their neighborhood public schools to provide quality education for their children, and rightfully so. Certainly, all parents in the U.S. should be able to choose the educational option that works best for them and their children. Most important, in this nation, every family in every community should have access to good schools. The only difference among schools should be perhaps each having a different focus. No parent anywhere in these United States should have to move or risk arrest in order to secure quality education for her/his child(ren).

How is it then, that millions of American children live in neighborhoods with schools chronically neglected by the same political/educational system that now wants to condemn them as "failing"?  In such settings, it is hypocritical and cruel to use the illusion of "choice" and "free-market competition" to justify closing or taking even more resources from those same schools; sending parents scurrying for scarce or non-existent schooling options. 

In a widely read New York Times op-ed last December, a black, middle-class mother from D.C. described "Why School Choice Fails."

"But I’ve come to realize that this brand of school reform is a great deal only if you live in a wealthy neighborhood. You buy a house, and access to a good school comes with it. Whether you choose to enroll there or not, the public investment in neighborhood schools only helps your property values.

 

For the rest of us, it’s a cynical game. There aren’t enough slots in the best neighborhood and charter schools. So even for those of us lucky ones with cars and school-data spreadsheets, our options are mediocre at best.

Today, I live in and my own chldren matriculated through a school district that is still dragging its feet about ending the inequities of segregation ("Justice Department Files Motion.." May 2011).  Most of those with whom I have taught here in the Mississippi Delta have done amazing work, sometimes under disgraceful conditions, helping many of our students go on to productice lives. I often wonder how much more those children could have achieved, and how many more we could have helped, if all schools had the resources and support of our better situated colleagues? Real school choice should start with making every public school worthy of choosing.

The supposition behind publicly sponsored school choice plans is that the way to improve schools is by generating competition that would force schools to either get better or close. In reality, as  Cheryl Williams correctly notes that, "to the extent we rely on competition to improve some schools, others will be left behind. In that situation the losers are always children, and ultimately the rest of us as well."  What such plans promote is abandonment of schools in the neediest communities, and the students with parents for whom moving/transferring is not an option. It is simplistic to suggest, as some voucher proponents do, that we just "let the money follow the students." The already insufficient resources at many of these schools cannot be easily or adequately sliced off on a per student basis without causing multiplied damage to those left behind.

Shouldn’t ending such longstanding inequities be a higher priority than funding faulty school choice schemes?

 

Cross-posted at National Journal.com, Education Experts

 

1 Comment

Susan Graham commented on April 7, 2013 at 11:36pm:

But who gets to choose?

School choice is not a choice when you are six years old and your parents don't speak English, or work two jobs and hope they can keep them both because they're necessary to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When your parents don't know where  to go for information, don't know how they will get you to that "chosen" school, or maybe just don't care, you don't get to choose. School choice presumes all parents have the same access to information, the capacity manage the system,  and  the desire to be as invested in their child's education as the upper middle class, college educated individuals who promote "choice" as a panacea. Six year olds don't get to choose. 

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