Friday, October 23, 2020

Did Covid-19 Destroy The Case Against School Choice?

Betsy DeVos repeatedly insists that the current pandemic A) shouldn't in any way interfere with the normal operation of public schools and B) makes it "more clear than ever" that school choice must be a thing, toot de suite. The two prongs of her argument belong to two entirely different pitchforks, but many folks with more coherent debate tools have picked up that second point. 

One of those is Rick Hess, who over at EdWeek argues that "Covid-19 Has Capsized the Case Against School Choice." To make his point, he calls back to a point he made back in the spring (you know--100 years ago):

The most effective argument made by opponents of school choice has long been the simple assertion that we can't trust choice to yield decent options for every child. And since every child has a right to be schooled, it's important to protect traditional public school systems in order to assure an acceptable default education for every child.

Hess's assertion is that "this line of argument is no longer operative." Covid has revealed that the public system "guarantees a lot less than we imagined." 

Hess points to a small list of public school pandemic failures-- missing students, dodgy methods of taking attendance, dumping home schooling requirements on harried parents, insisting that re-opening will require more money. These are all true things, and several are hard to excuse (except the "needs more money" part--the addition of PPE and the additional staff needed to handle daily school stuff in a socially distanced environment cost money). 

Hess, as is usual for him, is measured and careful in his criticism:

This isn't about the good intentions of district officials or teachers. And it isn't about bombastic claims that public schools are "failing" or that public systems should be blown up. The issue, rather, is that universalist "public" systems aren't delivering what was promised. This makes it harder for those who would denounce school choice's tapestry of options as an inadequate or immoral alternative to make their case.

It's a carefully calibrated point, and I appreciate the precision, but I still disagree. The thing is, for all the failings of pandemic public schooling, the fundamental criticism of charters hasn't changed. Public schools still have a mission to provide education for every single student; charters don't. 

I don't have any basis other than my best guess, but my best guess is that charters generally have managed better during the pandemic. A school like Success Academy (which did also close its doors for a few months) has already developed a well-connected monoculture that involves making sure its families stay on the same page as the school (if you haven't read Robert Pondiscio's How the Other Half Learns yet, do so). The broad and varied culture within a single public school is not necessarily so easily mustered.

Doing well with a creamed and curated collection of families is a fine thing, but it doesn't mean that choice schools are suddenly ready or willing to open their doors to everyone. Many charters still don't backfill, and plenty of private voucherized schools still insist on their right to reject students for whatever reasons they see fit. 

The only thing that has really changed about the choice landscape under pandemonium is that many families recognize that all available choices suck, and they would like others such as a school located in a magical land where there is no illness and students all go sit in desks in classrooms like they used to, with no extra procedures or general fear. School choice is no more prepared to offer that option than are public schools. 

The shortest form of my argument against school choice as it is currently conceived is that yes, there are some tremendous issues that the public school needs to handle better, but school choice doesn't solve any of them. While the pandemic has added to the list of issues for public schools, the outline of my argument hasn't changed a bit.

1 comment:

  1. It is often said by many, including you, that school choice does not mean that parents choose a school for their child, but that schools choose the students they will take. Here in Florida, we have a new twist. According to reports out of Boca Raton, Corcoran may order students back to campus in January or they will have to enroll in Florida Virtual. School choice, Florida style: You have a choice as long as you make the choice Corcoran has already made for you.