You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I have been thinking a lot about choice lately, especially after the news came out of Florida that children whose parents opted them out of the state standardized test will be forced to repeat third grade. That's right, children who have high grades, as well as good reading and writing and math ability, will repeat third grade simply because they did not take a standardized tests. This policy exposes the hypocrisy of the entire school reform movement. The movement champions choice for parents and children in the form of vouchers and charter schools, but not choice when it comes to taking the tests on which their whole house of cards is built. When faced with parents actually exercising choice the reformers inner-fascist comes out and we are told, "No! No! You must choose the choices that we choose for you, not the choices that you choose to choose." Peter Greene has a terrific take down of this kind of thinking here.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines choice as the "opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities." Education reformers want to give parents choice when they pick a school for their children, but by making that "choice" parents are apparently expected to forfeit any other choices they want to make. Once children are enrolled in a charter school, parent choice ends. Charters are run by boards that, unlike traditional public schools, are not elected and often not responsive to parent and student concerns. As I reported in an earlier post, the parent of the child who was berated by a Success Academy charter school teacher was told that she could not file a complaint with the NYC Board of Education because Success Academy is a "private entity." Her only recourse was to go to the Success Academy Board of Directors, an appointed group of hand picked Success Academy supporters.
There can be no real "choice" without a real "voice" in the education of your child. Parents choose charter schools seeking the best for their children (as a recent study shows what parents deem best is often determined by factors other than academics), but when they do so they may not realize that they are forfeiting their voice in their child's education. Children attending charter schools also forfeit their voice in their own education and are often subjected to a harsh, militaristic, "no-excuses" discipline regime based on shaming and harsh punishment for minor infractions. When parents make the choice of a charter school, they are also often making a choice to send their child across town and far out of their own neighborhood.
For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”
This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes. A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded from making the "choice" to attend these “high-achieving” schools by economic inequity.
Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance.
While all of this may sound good and may appeal to American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.
Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe clean air.
In our society, then, we are guided by the principle that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ reasonable choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy.
Choice is meaningless if it also seeks to silence parent and student voices. Choice, as the dictionary definition says, includes power. No voice = no power. If reformers wanted parents to have real choice, they would be working against the economic inequity that is limiting real choice, not offering the false choice of alternative schools or vouchers.
Parts of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, NY: Garn Press.