This is National School Choice Week, coming at a time when the concept of choice has become one of the most polarizing in our educational discourse. This conflict is something I feel intensely in my own life and work, as school choice has an impact on me as both a parent and teacher.
I live and work in a wonderful school district that provides parents and students with a wide array of choice through a charter school, open enrollment policies, and nationally recognized magnet programs.
My daughters attend one of these magnets, a school that utilizes inquiry-based learning models. My wife and I carefully considered the choice to send our daughters to this school, as they are zoned to attend an incredible elementary school with exceptional administrators and staff. As a result, our decision on where to send our daughters wasn’t a rejection of one school; it was an opportunity to embrace a school structure and approach that we, as parents, felt best fit the educational needs and learning styles of our children.
I want every parent to have the same opportunity to find that “right fit” for their child from a range of great options, and I’m willing to bet this sentiment is shared by practically every teacher, parent and policymaker in America. So, if we can all agree on the value of school choice, why is it so controversial? As is so often the case with important topics, for school choice, the devil, and the controversy, is in the details—and the money.
On this topic, consensus transitions into controversy when choice is supported by public dollars.
As an educator, I am an enthusiastic supporter of school choice made possible through public funding. I have seen the positive impact of open enrollment systems in my own district, and I have worked with outstanding educators that are making a meaningful difference in the lives of children in public charter schools in places from New Orleans, to rural North Carolina, to Philadelphia. In such instances, choice with public money is working because the following three criteria are true.
For publicly funded choice to really work, we need meaningful and robust systems of accountability applied to all schools within the system of choice. Please note this is not an endorsement of current systems of accountability, which are far from ideal. However, if schools aren’t being measured by the same standards, then choice cannot exist because parents are unable to make meaningful comparisons between options.
If I am trying to choose the healthiest food option for my child, I can’t do so if one food is required to report fat and calorie counts while another food is not. In the same way, a parent can not really choose schools if one is required to report student performance on a wide range of metrics, disaggregated by student subgroups, while the other is free of such requirements. A choice between these two schools would be under informed, which is honestly no choice at all.
True choice means a parent can decide to send their child to any school. However, if a child is prevented from attending a school as a result of their beliefs, identity, or academic record, then that isn’t real choice. I fully acknowledge and support the First Amendment right of private schools to set selective admission criteria, but the minute a private school becomes part of a choice system backed by public dollars, that school should be accessible to all students, regardless of their background.
Finally, for a system to truly promote choice, cost of attendance can not be a barrier for a student to attend any school within that system. Unfortunately, too many of the policies advanced by so-called proponents of choice fail to address this criteria.
For example, many “choice” advocates celebrated the inclusion of a provision in the final Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to allow families to use 529 savings accounts for K-12 expenses. In theory, this gives parents a new tax-advantaged saving vehicle to help cover costs of homeschooling or private school tuition. However, it is hard to envision how the proposal could meaningfully aid middle-class or low-income families.
I started monthly contributions to 529 plans to save for my daughters’ college expenses when they were born, and by the time they started kindergarten the growth in the portfolios was insufficient to have made a private elementary school education significantly more affordable. Since the timeline of saving for K-12 education is so condensed, it seems K-12 contributions to a 529 are little more than a new tax deduction for existing private school tuition. A real system of choice should focus resources on things like expanded and enhanced bus systems rather than saving money for those that can already afford choice.
In the end, I think our society’s consensus in support of school choice most clearly devolves into disagreement when proposals to expand choice fail to support the vision for education in this country so clearly articulated in Brown v. Board of Education. In this view, education serves as the “foundation of good citizenship…a principal instrument to awakening the child to cultural values….(and) a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
For a system of choice to truly be available to all children “on equal terms,” all schools must be subject to accountability, accessibility and affordability. Only under those conditions can all parents truly and effectively exercise the ability to find the best educational fit for their child.