Monday, September 15, 2014

The False Promise of School Choice

Governor Chris Christie was in Camden, New Jersey this week to praise the opening of some new charter schools that he is championing. A great believer in school choice, Christie said that parents should have “more choice, not less.”

I would like to take the Governor at his word on this. If I were a Camden parent and I had real “choice”, I would choose to send my child to a wealthy private school like the one Joe Kennedy, Sr. sent two of his sons to, Choate Rosemary Hall. I think all of us might do the same.

Choate, of course, is one of the go to private schools for the privileged in America. Located in Wallingford, Connecticut, its leafy sprawling 458 acre campus is home to “one of the leading schools in America.” Its alumni roll reads like a Who’s Who of American politics, industry, arts and letters, and sports. Graduates include John F. Kennedy, Edward Albee, John Dos Passos, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, nuclear physicist Katherine Way, Senator Bob Kasten and literally hundreds more prominent folks. They also have one of the top ice hockey programs for boys and girls in all of New England.

Not surprisingly, students at Choate appear to graduate “college and career ready.” Many of them furthering their education at places like Harvard and Yale.

OK, Ok, I know we can’t send all of our Camden students to Choate. After all it costs about 52,000 dollars a year to educate a boarding student there. So, if we can’t send all of our Camden kids to Choate, maybe we can provide them with a Choate-like curriculum right in South Jersey.

What does the Choate curriculum look like? Here are a few highlights.

·          There are more than 300 courses in the curriculum
·         Coursework includes community service and global studies
·         A two-year intensive Science Research Program includes mentored laboratory work during the summer at universities in the United States and abroad. 
·         The Capstone Program allows sixth form (senior) students to explore an area of the curriculum in depth. Working under a faculty adviser, students take at least five courses that focus on a curricular theme, culminating in a substantial final project.
·         The performing and visual arts are supported by the resources of the Paul Mellon Arts Center.
·         Among extracurricular arts clubs are six a cappella groups; step danceslam poetry, hip hop, and rap groups; improv, musical theater, and instrumental ensembles of all sizes; photography and film-making clubs; and supporting publications for the arts, fashion, and culture.
·         The Arts Concentration Program provides students with individually tailored instruction and class scheduling.
·         The Senior Project Program provides on- or off-campus internships in academic research, visual art, and the performing arts.
·         Other specialized programs include American Studies, creative writing, economics, Future Business Leaders, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and debate.
·         The Environmental Immersion Program allows students to study environmental issues in the Kohler Environmental Center  "the first teaching, research and residential environmental center in U.S. secondary education."
·         Choate students may compete in more than 30 varsity sports including crew, water polo and squash.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. Who wouldn’t want to have this type of choice for their children? I was struck by the lack of a mention of the Common Core State Standards in the curriculum. And while Choate students do take lots of AP courses and the corresponding tests, I could find no evidence of yearly standardized tests meant to determine adequate yearly progress.

So, what kind of choice does Governor Christie want to offer to Camden’s children? A choice to send their children to a publicly funded, privately run charter school managed by Mastery Charter. What will parents get for making this choice? A bare bones curriculum focused on achieving higher test scores on standardized measures. A curriculum taught by many neophyte, uncertified teachers who are likely to leave in a year or two for greener pastures, and a discipline regime based on rigid adherence to a “no excuses” philosophy and shaming.

They will also get no voice in the policies of this school, since their Boards are not elected entities and are often populated with people outside the community. Can we really sell the idea that parents are getting real choice when we deny them the voice that comes with the ballot box?

Politicians love to utter the word “choice” because it sounds so American. We all want to have choice. Unfortunately, these politicians do not want to offer poor, urban children any real choice. First, they underfund and undermine urban public schools and then offer “choice” in the form of privately run charters.

My bet is that given a real choice, parents of children in Camden and all cities would choose to have a fully funded, well-staffed, well-maintained local neighborhood public school that offers a rich and varied curriculum focused on the interests and passions of every child and where parents could voice their “choice” every couple of years by using that good old American vehicle of choice, the vote.

The wealthy and powerful of this country have demonstrated what kind of education is appropriate for their children by choosing to send those children to schools like Choate, which offer a rich curriculum in an idyllic trusting and nurturing environment. Why do they fail to offer a similar kind of choice to other people’s children?

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