Attending the SOS conference this past weekend got me thinking about the roots of the debate over public education once again. I often think that there is an inherent difference between the way many of us think about the way we should organize ourselves that is not being dealt with. I think it has to do with whether you think of humanity mostly as one thing with common interests OR about 7 billion different things with about 7 billion different interests.
About eight months ago I wrote about how I think this ideological divide creeps into our debate over charter schools without us even realizing it for Learning Matters. Here are my thoughts below. What do you think? Am I being overly simplistic?
Are we washing our hands of impoverished communities?
The argument over school choice is merely another argument over which should hold primacy: the group or the individual. Is public education about providing a quality education to all students, or only to those students whose families have the means and motivation to seek it out?
Underprivileged schools contain a diverse group of students. There exist apathetic students with staggeringly low skills, students on and above grade-level who fight desperately to learn, and, of course, so many in between. School choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools serves only one section of any given underprivileged school when it works well (i.e. when charters and vouchers actually provide a more quality education than the traditional public school). Families who are displeased with the services being provided by their local public school choose higher performing charter or private schools and leave the often poorer, lower skilled student behind. Because the quality of a given school is largely determined by the students who attend, the traditional public school often then ends up with less money to accomplish a more difficult task. This is why Richard Kahlenberg argues so effectively in favor of magnet schools.
Arguments in favor of school choice often rely on the false notion of the rational market. Douglas Harris is right to point out that it is very difficult to know what a good school is. Few parents are provided the necessary tools to make a sound judgement, particularly when the market for schools has created obscene marketing techniques in cities across the country. Charter school networks like Harlem Success Academy have been accused of targeting the easiest students to educate – i.e. screening out those with disabilities or English language learners – and counseling out those with behavioral problems. When students who come from families with means and motivation are separated from those without, a new era of school segregation has begun, one just as pernicious as pre-1954.
Now we can see clearly that public education’s underlying tension is the same as at its inception: individual determination versus the advancement of the interests of our democracy as a whole. Because studies show that negative rates of obesity, teenage pregnancy, imprisonment, crime, and social mobility are all associated with countries that maintain relatively high rates of economic inequality; and it is clear that economic inequality is strongly associated with educational advancement; I think we’d be right to worry that our current version of choice may not be in our collective best interest.
If the purpose of choice is to improve the educational outcomes of as many students as possible, then choice will have to be refashioned so that it doesn’t allow for the negative effects on public schools and public school space we’re currently seeing from Los Angeles to New York to Miami.
If, on the other hand, the purpose of providing choice is merely to wash our hands of the problems of impoverished communities by saying, “Look, we gave you a choice,” I’m afraid we’ll all be paying for that choice for a long time to come.