The Debate We Need Is Not About School Choice, It’s About Access and Quality

As a long time education reformer, I couldn’t care less about “school choice.” And focusing on “choice” by itself, doesn’t necessarily help kids or increase equity.  Most importantly, that’s not how I hear families describe what they want, which should be our focus.

Sadly though, parents and families are more often positioned as props than listened to, or engaged as deciders—and that’s a problem for both charter and district sectors.  It’s time we listen, and reframe the debate to one about access and quality—that’s what families I talk to talk about, and that is what actually matters.

The vacuous meaning of choice

“Choice” has served as a banner that a range of reformers could stand underneath and not engage in the civil war that would erupt if we talked values or endgame.  Who isn’t for choice?

But in reality it is an empty banner—that has no values and is subject to being co-opted.  Health care is a choice…  And choice for choice’s sake has really gotten us nowhere.  Remember the right to choose a better school for children in “failing” ones under No Child Left Behind—only thing, there were no spots open at higher quality schools.

I heard the same comments from families in the years after Katrina in New Orleans.  Sure, there are all these hypothetical choices, but in reality there often is not a spot for your kid.  It feels the same as having no choices, maybe worse, since you were promised something better.

Or, Oakland is an open enrollment district, technically everyone can choose their school—how is that working out—is equity and quality increased by that—not sure?  I would bet you dollars to donuts that the choosers will tend to have more resources and better neighborhood schools, than the non-choosers.  And choice in Oakland often requires transportation, which again is inequitably distributed.  This is a charter issue too.

Listen to Families and the Message is Clear

Most Importantly, I almost never hear the “real families” of Oakland—those who really need quality schools and struggle to find them—voice arguments about “school choice.”  That is not on the list of demands.

They want access to a quality school where they are treated with concern and respect.  It’s about quality and access, and being treated fairly.  And the further we move our eye from that ball, the weaker our standing in the community and the lower our likelihood of success.

If we want real reform that sticks, it needs to be rooted in the experiences and desires of families, not some neo-classical economist’s notebook.  And in this age, where language is increasingly debased and a certain double speak prevails alongside alternative facts.  We need to be really clear about what and who we stand for.

Choice is an empty banner, that has outlived its usefulness.  It may be a means to an end, but it is not an end in itself, and needs to be judged by results.  So let’s jettison this increasingly meaningless reform jargon and listen to families for a change.

They want access to quality schools, they don’t need unlimited choices, they don’t need charter schools, they don’t need vouchers.  They need authentic access to quality schools, and if we focus our eye on them and in supporting that, in whatever form those accessible quality schools come, I think we will be OK.

While, if we keep parroting this rhetoric around choice, I worry reformers will be seen as even further out of touch, and real reform that matters to families, even further out of reach.

What do you think?

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