Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on School Choice

School choice has been one a divisive issue in education reform for decades now.  Vouchers, it has been argued, would allow poor children in failing schools to take "their tax money" and spend it on a better school of their own choice.  Competition for this funding would logically force all schools to improve, or so the story goes.  The pro-con points - separation of church/state, local control, leaving some children behind, freedom - are well known.  Recently Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has weighed in on the school choice issue from a new angle - the suburbs where schools are reasonably well performing.

Michael Petrilli believes that even parents in stable and even affluent districts with "good schools" should be able to "choose" which school would be best for their kids.  Petrilli argues from the perspective of a "Koala Dad" - as opposed to a "Tiger Mom" - and believes that escaping failing schools shouldn't be the only reason parents deserve the freedom to choose their children's schools.  Why should the be restricted by neighborhood?  What if their district school is athletically focused or better in math and science, but a school down the road has a better theater department which suits their child who has more literary interests?

I don’t entirely disagree - logically people should be able to choose their child's school.  And, that's true even if choice critics claim suburban parents "choose" their school by "choosing" their neighborhood.  That is certainly true where I live - realtors comment on clients who simply map out our district and tell the agent to find a home within that boundary.  And, Petrilli is probably aware that this issue is currently being played out in the suburbs of Colorado in the Douglas County School District.  While that plan has been frozen by a judge - because Colorado's state constitution specifically prohibits spending public money for religious institutions - this court case has stirred the debate precisely because the area is one of the richest in the nation with some of the state's best schools.  It has seemed to be a more political/ideological move by the school board as opposed to community driven in search of improving schools.

I believe kids should be able to choose their school – in fact, I remember watching Waiting for Superman and thinking, "Just let them go."  Period.  If more kids want to attend a charter school, the district should simply expand the school.  Shift the funds.  There should be no lotteries and no waiting lists for schools.  Kids and parents should have such freedom of choice - which is why I like that Colorado has open enrollment statewide. Colorado has open enrollment and a thriving charter system.  However, when you expand to private schools you must acknowledge the reservations. I don’t have a big problem with the religious angle – but you can’t endorse vouchers for private schools that don’t have to meet basic public education laws. As long as the school allows regulation and total transparency, and as long as it can’t refuse to provide services to all students, his argument is valid. But if the school refuses state assessments and refuses to provide special education services and refuses to provide transparency and regulation that district schools do, then I fundamentally oppose the use of public funds. I hope Michael does, too. And, Michael, should have mentioned that the private schools must be accountable in all the same ways.
And, as a side note, I challenge Petrilli's attempt to support his idea by piggybacking on Jay P Greene’s flawed and biased argument that even our best schools “trail the world.” Because they don’t. If you remove all schools that have poverty rates above 15-20%, then in TIMMS and PISA, the United States schools rank number one in the world. Michael needs to concede and acknowledge these realities. Otherwise the arguments are not credible to people who actually know the facts. And he is, subsequently, just misleading an uninformed US public.
That's part of a teacher's view on school choice.


Unknown said...

An education can be important, but it's not the end either. As a business leader with hiring responsibilities, I tend not too over rely on school credeentials. I tend to interview, looking for ability to communicate versus technical skill.

mmazenko said...

Well said, Rick. It would be nice if more employers were willing to look at the person and not the credential exclusively. Clearly, the role of people skills and emotional intelligence can be as, or more, important that IQ and test scores.