Sunday, May 27, 2012

The School Choice Dichotomy

The issues of school choice and the use of vouchers represent one of the most vexing controversies in the national debate, vexing because both advocates and opponents have strong, legitimate arguments to be made for them.

The lens with which one looks through says a lot about their general approach to education reform. The dichotomy illuminates one’s belief in the nature of the relationship between the individual and the community. The positions are intractable and so political power and political victory rather than a philosophical triumph are the presumptive goals.
This is School Choice Week, bringing the issue to the forefront of the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney’s visit to a Philadelphia charter school, along with President Obama’s vocal support for public education, shows that their view on these issues could have electoral ramifications.

The problem for people like me is that I support both positions and believe that they are not mutually exclusive. The reason is that advocates of school choice and vouchers believe that parents should have the right to choose which school their children attend, while opponents passionately defend the right of ALL students- not individual ones-to a quality education. They unfortunately see school choice and vouchers a threat, though they are no more a threat than charter schools have proven (not) to be.

It is hard not to feel empathy for parents that are fully engaged in their children’s education, frustrated by the obvious inequities they see every day. Why can’t their children have the same opportunities, the same exposure to exemplary teachers, the same advantage of attending a school with a vigorous culture of learning. The reasons for this inequity are complex, some requiring years of urban planning to rectify. Some are more immediate and addressable.

There are practical impediments to the school choice/voucher plan, the most obvious being the availability of “seats” in quality schools. Where seats do exist, mostly in parochial schools, First Amendment issues invariably get raised. The value of the voucher has also been a hindrance; the tuition gap is still immense and difficult to fund without some dedicated funding. Personally, I feel that parents should receive the same “per pupil” amount of money   that charter schools receive for each enrollee.
Opponents of this plan are rightly concerned that a consequence of school choice will be a siphoning off of the best students at these urban schools, not necessarily the smartest but those who are the most involved, most perspicacious, and  most likely to advocate for themselves. All I can say in response is that these urban schools must do a better job embracing new ideas and must do a better job creating a culture of learning at their school. Right now there is nothing going on at these schools to persuade these “choice parents” to take what they perceive is the risk of keeping their children in the urban public school.

So in my view the advocates and opponents of school choice/vouchers both have legitimate arguments to support their positions, that the positions are not mutually exclusive, and that room for compromise is possible. The one place where I think the choice people are flirting with delusion is the notion that “competition” is the best tonic for fixing what ails the public schools. I really don’t think the people that believe this have ever taken this argument past the stage of concept. In a sense competition already exists, albeit the playing field is not level since those seeking alternatives to the neighborhood school must come up with money for an alternative school. Even if every family wanting to send their child to an existing private or parochial school was able to do so, the number of “seats” to be filled with these new students would hardly make a dent in the dropout rates at the public schools. How would competition work? Are we to essentially eliminate public schools and basically turn all of these schools into charter schools? What happens to kids that attend a failing school, where do they turn? Are parents going to be equipped with all the relevant information so that they can make choices as a fully informed consumer? And what of the teachers’ union, would they have members suddenly competing against each other within a school or between schools?

For the record, those that wrote the original charter school legislation in New Jersey did NOT advocate competition among their rationales for charter schools. Rather, they believed that collaboration and cooperation between public and charter schools, sharing innovative ideas for instruction, would be an important way to improve teacher performance and student learning outcomes.

Individual students have a basic right to a quality education, and their parents should have as much freedom as possible to advocate for their children. At the same time, it is incumbent on our political and educational leaders to design public policy for the benefit of all students, and that can only be done by making a commitment to the neighborhood school. Schools do not exist in isolation; education reform and urban reform are inextricably linked.

I’ve written elsewhere that if the dropout rate were instead an infection rate, New Jersey’s cities would have declared a health crisis, if they were crime rates we would have called in the National Guard. The problem we are facing has its roots in neighborhoods that are completely dysfunctional, with families led by a parent or parents who either won’t or can’t make the effort it takes to help their children succeed. If I was a parent who cared, in a community of parents that don’t, I’d want to get my kid out of that school too. Unlike wealthier parents, they don’t have the luxury of moving, they don’t in essence have “choice.” Unless we improve these urban communities, and unless we as a society do a better job at parenting, in fact confronting poor parenting where it is in evidence, improvement in the inner city schools will continue to elude us, giving more and more credence to families that want to opt out. I share their pain, and I sympathize with their plight. In a nation that cherishes the notion of individualism, their position must be respected.

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