In the debate over education “reform” — a discussion that extends from tuition vouchers and teachers’ unions to standardized tests and school governance — one of the more popular catchwords is “choice.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education plan, introduced in Washington last month, calls parent choice “foundational” because, “by establishing a consumer driven market ecosystem,” it forms the support for all other reform criteria.
“All parents deserve to choose the education that fits their children best,” the education plan says. “Any change to education policy should be measured, first, by whether it will empower them to choose or take that choice away.”
But choice isn’t just a conservative shibboleth; it’s been an important touchstone for liberals as well. You might look upon the school integration struggles of the past 70 years or so as an attempt to establish choice for African-American students.
First, there was segregation by law in the South, which severely limited black students’ choice in schools. Along with that was de facto segregation, which funneled African-American students into schools close to where they lived, even though they may have been broken-down facilities, often without textbooks and other supplies.
Choosing a better school no doubt plays a big role in improving educational outcomes for all children. But what a lot of school “reformers” today refer to as choice is actually only the illusion of choice.
In New Orleans, where charter schools predominate in the public education system, parents may choose which schools they want to send their kids to.
If, for example, you go knocking at the door of Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans asking them to let your child in, you’ll find out that your choice is only conditional.
Franklin, one of the best in the state, is a school for very smart kids. It takes a limited number of students for every freshman class based on strict benchmarks and won’t take any students once the school year has begun.
There’s nothing wrong with having tough criteria like that, but how does it fit in with the idea that choice is the most important part of school reform? If reformers think there should be more schools like Franklin, then maybe they should admit that choice isn’t as primary a factor as they claim it is.
All parents in New Orleans have their choice in schools the way that any American may choose to travel to Switzerland for vacation. While in theory we all have that choice, in reality only a tiny number of us can afford the trip.
For many parents, their choice in public schools is limited by such factors as the distance from home to school and the availability, reliability and affordability of transportation options to get to that school.
If a “consumer-driven” choice system is going to draw students to the better schools, that also means those schools will reach capacity sooner and have to reject some of the students who have chosen them.
I’m afraid that in the reform debate, “choice” is just a feel-good word that masks deeper problems.
Rather than watching as the “market ecosystem” results in some schools getting worse while good schools get better, we should make all public schools ones that students will want to go to. Keep parental choice intact, but spend the money to make sure that any school — whether it’s first, second or third on a parent’s list of choices — is one that anyone would be happy to attend.
It’ll take a big investment to make all schools worthwhile. Sadly, in the current environment, I’m not sure that’s a choice we’re willing to make.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.