Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Which Choice Would You Choose?

If you were (or are) a parent, which one of the following options would you prefer?


Your neighborhood is served by a single public school.

That school is well-staffed with a range of young and experienced professional educators, well-trained and committed to the needs of their students, and they are well-managed and well-paid so that they stay on as the foundation of a stable school community. The school is a well-maintained facility, clean and safe. It offers a wide variety of quality programs under one roof, with the flexibility for students to explore different educational paths and even change their minds (because young folks sometimes do that), as well as allowing them to enrich one path with samplings from others (in other words, your future biologist won't have to give up band). The school is fully funded and has a full range of up-to-date quality resources.

The school is transparently managed and controlled by an elected board of local community members who meet in public and are available to be contacted by any resident or taxpayer in the district. The management of the school is nimble, flexible, and open to input from all stakeholders.


In this option, your neighborhood is served by many schools, and you have plenty of choices that you may be able to access by using your voucher or some other sort of choice mechanism.

Choice #1: Never mind. This elite private school is out of your price range, even with your state-issued modest voucher.

Choice #2: This Christ-centered private school will gladly accept your child, as long as that child behaves properly, which includes a properly worshipful attitude in daily devotions and Bible readings. And don't worry-- we won't be teaching your child any of that foolish evolution-filled "science" stuff.

Choice #3: Our experts have determined that this is the kind of school People Like You need for their children. Strict, no excuses, speak only when spoken to regimentation. It certainly wouldn't fly over in East Egg, but it's just what the children of You People need to take your proper place in the world.

Choice #3A: If you're in the South, there's also this school, but you can only send your kid here if you're white. Because Those People need to be kept on their own side of town.

Choice #4: We will provide a program much like a regular public school, except we don't have any adaptations for students with special needs or English language learners. You're certainly welcome to send your child with special needs, or who is five years behind in English language acquisition, but understand that we aren't going to do anything special for them.

Choice #5: We decided to launch a special math-centered school. We make room in the budget for super-math stuff by cutting music, art, sports and history. All students attend the same English class which meets every other day in the auditorium. But our math program is definitely more than adequate.

Choice #6: This school was started by some Very Nice People who thought, "How hard can it be to run a school?" It looks like a nice enough place, but none of the teachers have been paid for a month and it will probably close before Easter.

Choice #7: Big National Chain Charter School. The program is already packaged and all our brand-new staff members need to do (it's always brand new because no staff stays here for more than a year or two, which is okay because we don't need to hire actual certified teachers anyway, so they're easy to replace) is open the binder and follow the program. If you would like to talk about changes to the program, feel free to contact our corporate headquarters, which are not actually in your state.

Choice #8: What do you want? Look at our glossy advertisements! We will promise you all sorts of stuff. We will never deliver any of it, but by the time you figure that out it will be too late-- we'll have your money and you'll have to decide how badly you want to disrupt your child's school year in the middle.

Choice #9: Your public school. It still exists, but the other eight schools have drained so much money from it that it is now a sad, limping, underfunded shadow of a real school.

With the exception of Choice #9, none of these schools are managed or operated publicly. You can't attend the meetings, you can't see the books, and you can't contact the board members easily, if at all. You don't get a voice-- the only stakeholders who matter are the people who own and operate the school, and they'll give you the choice they feel like giving you.


Voucher advocates-- particularly the ones who advocate for "parental choice" or "parent rights"-- seem to insist that Option 2 is the better one. Their argument is that Option 1 is a choice that only wealthier families get to exercise by virtue of their ability to buy a house in that school's neighborhood. And they aren't wrong-- linking school funding to the power of the real estate market means that schools in richer neighborhoods get better funding. That is a problem worth addressing.

And yet, Option 2 does not address it. The school in Option 1 is still not available to less wealthy parents. They are presented with only the choices that other choosers choose for them, and in the process, they lose even a limited ability to influence what those choices are going to be. So they lose a shot at improving their public school, and get little-to-nothing in return.

Parent choice advocates might argue that Option 2 is still a better option because choice is such a great value, in and of itself, that providing choice to parents is more important than anything else-- including making sure that the available choices are actually any good.

But I keep coming back to the same idea-- if we want all students to be able to choose the school in Option A, why not do what it takes to transform every public school into Option A? Option A actually offers more choice, more flexibility, but most of all, more of the things that families actually want. Once upon a time reformsters made noises about charters developing great ideas to create great schools, but we already have a plethora of model public schools-- why not use them as a template? Why not muster the sort of "War on Poverty" or "Get To The Moon" or "Endless Battles in Other Countries" willpower we've mustered before and direct it toward making all schools great schools?

If I were a cynic, I might conclude that it's because no private operators can make a bundle under that plan.

Choicers will argue that I've stacked the deck, that these aren't the real options. Real World Option A, they'll say, is one lousy school, and while that may be true in some communities, how is multiple lousy choices better than one lousy choice-- and if you only had so much money, would you rather try to fix up one house or a whole bunch of houses with that money? Real World Option B, they'll say, has more awesomely wonderful choices than I represent here, and you know, there was a time I believed that might be theoretically possible, but reality seems to be stubborn in this regard. It's almost as if running a school is hard, and doubly hard if you're trying to make a business out of it.

But seriously-- what parent would choose Option B over Option A? It's really no choice at all.


  1. To be fair, you should probably throw some kind of Waldorf or Montessori hippy school in there.

    1. In my state it's not a choice. There are no Waldorf and the only Montessori are private, no charters, so out of my reach. I guess there are no charters because you can't get rich quick off of them since they use real teaching based on cognitive science. I wouldn't call them "hippy" though. They've both been around for a hundred years and get good results.

  2. Peter, I made exactly your points to corporate ed. reform spokes-hole Dimitry Melhorn, and his response was that, outside of affluent communitiies, there's no such thing as a successfully functioning traditional public school. They simply don't exist. In middle and working class communities everywhere, the traditional public schools are all hopelessly sucky, and thus, we need to give those kids & their parents "choice" to get away from them.

    I'll remember that when I return to work at one of those schools tomorrow.

    This little tete-a-tete was on Jersey Jazzman's blog a while back:

    DIMITRY MELHORN: "Ultimately, however, this theory is not as important as the parents of color, segregated residentially in urban areas, who seek choice. Their voices should arbitrate whether the evidence for charters is 'good enough.' If we have to wait for teachers’ union officials, and the politicians beholden to them, to decide that charter results are 'better enough' to justify further expansion? Well, as Upton Sinclair explained, those families will be waiting a long time. "


  3. I responded ...

    JACK COVEY: " 'Dimitry, when you offer someone a choice of ...

    " ... of two cars at the same price --- one brand new, and one used with 100,000 on the odometer ...

    "That's not really a choice, now, is it?

    "The game is being rigged against public schools, and in favor of privately-managed charter schools. The playing field is not level.

    "There's a secret, leaked memo circulating from billionaire Eli Broad and his people about privatizing Los Angeles schools --- i.e. replacing them with privately-managed charter chains that Broad either owns in part or to which Broad is affiliated.

    "At one point in this wretched document, the writers curse the fact that, thanks to Prop 30's passage, funding FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS has increased. The memo's authors cite that as an unfortunate development and that any such funding and improvement in the quality of public schools (for example, that led to... HORROR OF HORRORS ... a 10% pay increase for teachers) as an obstacle to an eventual full charter takeover, and thus, devoutly to be avoided or prevented in the future.

    "Indeed, the resulting improvement in the quality of Los Angeles' public schools and its teachers is viewed by Broad (and the memo's authors) as a negative --- kids' education improving IS A BAD THING if it takes place in a traditional public school. Indeed, such a development is an obstacle that privativers/charter-izers must unfortunately overcome, as that makes the traditional public schools more competitive with privately-managed charters --- those privately-managed schools which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations that the traditional public schools do not.

    "These propagandistic talking points are all once again made to keep that starvation of traditional public schools going. .. with the endgame being the total destruction of traditional public school.. as has happened in New Orleans.

    "It’s funny how the corporate reformers say,

    " 'We’re about giving parents 'choice' in schools.'

    "However, when a parent in New Orleans (or elsewhere) says,

    " 'Well, my choice is to have a fully-funded, traditional, open-enrollment public school in my neighborhood --- where, for example, I can walk my kids to school, and with low class sizes, and a full and rich curriculum --- and have that school under the oversight of a school board where I and my fellow citizens can vote for who is on that board.
    Can I have that choice, please?'

    "The response from corporate reformers a bitter comeback, 'Hell no! You can’t have THAT choice.'

    "As Jennifer (Edushyster) Berkshire puts it,

    " "What’s the good of having so-called ‘choice’, when you don’t have any control over the choices that you get to choose ... if every choice is a privately-managed charter school where the parents and the citizens have ZERO decision-making power or input in that school's governance?' "

    DIMITRY MELHORN: "You are right that 'choice' does not extend to the ability to choose a monopoly school that compels attendance by all parents. This is a 'choice' that pretty much has only worked out for prosperous suburban whites."

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x



    Notice how Dimitry pivots away from my question. I ask why aren't parents aren't allowed to choose a traditional public school, one that's fully funded with top-notch teachers, a full and rich curriculum, and transparent, democratic governance via and elected school board, low class size ... etc.

    And Dimitry responds with pejorative "monopoly schools", and blathers about people being "compelled" to attend them ... totally not the question asked.

    I wasn't talking about anyone being compelled to attend a school. I was asking, "What about parents who want this choice --- a traditional public school that's fully funded, etc. (SEE ABOVE) ? In your world, will those parents be given that choice?"

    And, in essence, Dimitry respondes, "No, they ain't ever gonna get THAT choice. Just privately-managed charters. That's all that's on the menu, so just shut up and choose one of 'em."

    Which is exactly how the corporate ed. refomr end game --- as illustrated by New Orleans' school system --- has played out, and will in cities and states where they get their way.

  5. Another aspect to Option B, which you mention but deserves a bit of promoting, is that parents will most likely get to make this choice several times in their child's career, because start-up schools are likely to have highly unpredictable futures. Hooray! More choice!

  6. My hope is that, just as many parents have opted their children out of the BIG TEST, they will opt out of (non) choice in sufficient numbers to save our neighborhood schools. The propaganda is as clever as it is deceitful so my hope is thin.