Families need a choice. Parents want a choice. Poor students deserve a choice. We hear the rhetoric over and over again, but I remain convinced that it's baloney.
People do not want choice.
When I sit down in a restaurant and order my favorite meal, the one I've been craving all day, I don't sit there eating it thinking, "Oh, if only there were more choices. If only, in addition to the meal I'm eating, there was a wider variety of other meals for me to not eat."
When I look across the room at my wife, as my heart fills up with love, I don't think, "If only there were an assortment of women that I could have married, but didn't. That would make my marriage way better."
If I'm watching a movie in a multiplex, my enjoyment is not enhanced by knowledge that there are many swell movies playing on the other screens that I am not watching.
And if my child is in a great school, I don't think, "Oh, if only there were other excellent schools that she wasn't attending."
Furthermore, the corporate guys who tout choice as a value don't believe it, either.
No business says, "It's really important that the consumers have a choice. Let's get one of our competitors into this neighborhood." Ronald McDonald does not give the Burger King a stack of money and say, "Hey, come open a store across the street from me so the consumers can have a choice." No group of suits sits in a boardroom and says, "Boy, if all the consumers became our customers, that would be awful because it would wipe out choice."
When corporate types extol choice, what they always mean is "We want more customers to choose us."
But nobody wants choice.
What do people actually want? They want to have what they want to have.
"I want more choices," never means, "I have chosen what I want, but I want to know that the options I didn't choose are all great."
"I want choice," really means "I do not like the available options. I want to be offered the option of having what I actually want." If my favorite restaurant has my favorite meal, I don't care if the entire rest of the menu is blank. But if I look at a menu and see nothing that interests me, I'd like more choice. Either way, at the end of the day, I am only going to eat one meal. What difference does it make if the meals that I don't eat are appealing or unappealing to me?
Do parents want school choice? I doubt it. Maybe there are some folks who want to know that while their child is in a great school, there are other schools she could be going to instead. But I'm doubtful.
Do parents want school choice? I doubt it. What parents want is for their child to be in a great school, and if their child is in a great school, they aren't going to care if that school is the only school or one school out of a thousand. Some are going to say that choice will drive excellence, but again--
what's the real goal? Would you really be unhappy if your child were in
an outstanding school that didn't get that way through competition? I
don't think so.
Why do lots of parents in poor, neglected school districts like the idea of choice? It's not because they love the idea of choices. It's because their local menu offers the prospect of a terrible meal. They want more choices because they are hoping that one of those choices, finally, will be an excellent education for their children.
Nobody really wants choice. What people want is to have what they want. What they want from education is for their children to be in good schools.
But focusing on choice instead of school quality leads to focusing on the wrong thing, sometimes to the detriment of the real goal. Providing choice on a thin budget makes excellence that much harder to achieve. And it completely blinds us to the reformy option that charter/choice fans never want to talk about:
What would happen if we took all the time and energy and money poured into pushing charter/choice and focused it on turning the local schools into schools of excellence.
Some reformsters are going to claim we tried that. I don't believe that's true, for a variety of reasons that would stretch this post from Too Long to Way Too Long.
Some folks have decided that our model for school reform should be like a guy who finds his car filled up with fast food wrappers and in need of new tires-- so instead of working on the car, he goes out and buys three new cars. It's a waste of resources-- and he can only drive one car, anyway. School choice and charter systems have turned out to be hella expensive, costing not only money but community ties and stability, and only rarely delivering excellence-- and that only for a small percentage of students.
People want excellence (or at least their idea of excellence). Some people push choice as a way to get there. But what if it isn't? What if there are better ways to get to excellence?
Look, we know why some people love the idea of choice-- because it is a great way for them to get their hands on bundles of that sweet sweet public tax money. But for people who have a sincere interest in school choice, my request is that they step back and ask themselves what their real goal is, and if it's having each child in the nation in an excellent school, let's talk about that. If you think that choice is a path to that goal, well, you and I have some serious disagreements ahead of us. But the discussion will be much more useful and productive if we focus on the real goal and not get distracted by mistaking means for an end.