I can’t hear the words “School Choice” without thinking of Inigo Montoya from the classic film “The Princess Bride.”
I hear Mandy Patinkin’s voice saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Because just like the constant cries of “Inconceivable!” from Sicilian boss Vizzini (portrayed by the inimitable Wallace Shawn), policymakers seem a bit confused.
You would expect School Choice to mean that parents would get to choose the school their children attend. However, the policy being pushed by corporate education reformers has nothing to do with that.
It’s about allowing schools to choose students, not the other way around.
Want your child to attend a charter school? Great! In many cases he needs to meet the requirements of admission – good grades, well behaved, no learning disabilities – otherwise they boot him back to the traditional public school he came from.
Want your child to use a voucher to attend a private school? Fine! The voucher will pay for some of her tuition, but you’d better be able to make up the rest AND she needs to meet the criteria for admission.
If administrators don’t want to accept your child, they don’t have to, nor do they ever have to explain why, nor do you get a public forum where you can question them, nor do you have any power to vote them out.
They could decide to turn you down because your child is a minority, disabled, gay, has a belief system of which they do not approve, anything really! And they will never have to explain themselves to anyone.
To me, that’s not school choice. But that’s what they’re selling and some folks are buying it all up like an email sent to you by an inconvenienced Nigerian Prince who just needs your help with a funds transfer.
However, this isn’t to say that the idea of School Choice – REAL School Choice – is inconceivable. (Forgive me, Vizzini.)
You could devise a system of School Choice that actually involved parents being able to choose the school their children attend.
I wouldn’t suggest it. I’m opposed to all forms of School Choice for reasons I’ll make clear later. But I would certainly be more amenable to a plan that actually did what it seems to promise.
So what would real educational choice look like? What would we need to achieve this goal?
First, it would require a massive increase in school funding.
Think about it. You’re asking the government to pay for several separate, parallel systems of education. Students won’t just have School A to choose from. They’ll have School A, B and C.
So we need to construct more schools. We need to staff them. We need to provide each one with books, computers, equipment, etc. That’s going to cost an incredible amount of money.
We’re talking about at least doubling the amount of money we pay for public schools – more likely tripling or quadrupling it.
This is certainly possible. Maybe it’s even preferable. But it won’t be politically acceptable for many people. The push has been to downsize government, do things on the cheap, lower taxes, etc.
Strangely, School Choice cheerleaders often push their agenda as a way to save money. That’s because they don’t care about the quality of the choices they’re offering. They’re not providing enough money for several excellent schools that parents can pick from. They’re taking the money we already spend on one school and having multiple schools fight for it.
It’s like a dogfight for schools. They’ll rip and tear at each other, and the winner gets to take away the most funding. It’s a bad model for animals and an even worse one for schools because everyone loses. No one walks away with enough money to get the job done. You end up with several choices but none of them can really provide the best academic experience. None of them can even provide the kind of education that would come from having just one well-funded choice.
What’s worse, in most states even before you start adding parallel schools, the current funding system is broken. We simply don’t provide enough funding for the schools we already have without adding even more choices.
All public schools don’t get the same amount of money per pupil. That’s true even when you adjust for costs.
Under the current system, schools with a rich tax base provide Cadillac resources for their children. Meanwhile, schools with a poor tax base can’t provide everything that is needed so their kids have to do with less. That means fewer resources, fewer teachers, larger classes, etc.
So-called School Choice policies only make this worse. Schools that already don’t have enough funding to meet their students needs have to give larger portions of their shrinking budgets to charter schools. So instead of one school without enough funding, we have two. That doesn’t fix anything.
However, both of these problems are solvable and the solution is the same in both cases – money.
If you want real choice, you need to do two things: (1) discontinue funding schools based on local property taxes and (2) dramatically increase school funding. Both the state and federal government would have to kick in much more. Local taxes could still be collected to pay a portion for public schools – this could even be collected based on how much each community can afford – but no longer could we allow poor students to get less funding than rich kids. No matter where you lived – in the slums or in a gated community – you’d get whatever funding your school deemed necessary.
This would probably be paid for with a substantial tax increase, though you could also make cuts in other places in local, state, and federal budgets. For most people, I think this would be unacceptable, but it is certainly conceivable.
Second, you need the same rules governing these separate systems – especially when it comes to admissions.
This would be especially hard on charter school and private school administrators.
There could be no more picking and choosing which students get to attend your school. If an emotionally disturbed student with bad grades and an even worse record of behavior wants to attend your charter school, you’ve got to accept him. If a poor student whose parents don’t have the money for tuition (even with the voucher in hand) want to attend your private school, you’ve got to accept her.
This shouldn’t be such a burden. It’s what traditional public schools do now. They take everyone regardless of grades, ability, behavior or poverty.
Third, all schools would have to be transparent and democratically controlled. Their budgets and internal documents would have to be open to public record. Moreover, decisions about how to run the school could not be made behind closed doors – they would have to be made in public. And school directors would have to be subject to democratic control. Decision-makers could no longer be appointed by boards of investors, the mayor or any other bureaucrat. They’d be selected by voters. These would all be public schools, after all, and as such would be subject to rule by the public.
Think about what that means. If your child attends a school, you should get a say in what happens at that school. Even if your child doesn’t attend the school, even if you have no children, you should have a say simply because you pay taxes.
This has been the practice at traditional public schools since forever. In fact, unless the school has been taken over by the state, it’s required by law. But at charters and private schools, it’s not always the case.
It’s funny. In many ways under our current system, the public gets much more input, much more choice at traditional public schools than at so-called School Choice institutions.
Many charters and private schools would balk at this. They are not run democratically and are not beholden to the public.
That’s just the way they like it. Their business model requires it. If they had to be fully transparent and accountable to taxpayers, what would happen to those schools organized for-profit?
I would assume that they would disappear. I think very few parents and taxpayers would allow a fully transparent school to pocket a large chunk of its budget like that. I can’t imagine the public approving a decision to cut student services to boost the bottom line – but this is exactly what happens at certain charter schools every day. Only the protection of current School Choice policies that shield investors from taxpayers allows this kind of malfeasance.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can have real School Choice without all the drawbacks of charters and voucher schools. We can have a system where parents get to pick their children’s schools, where the public is in control, where every child gets an excellent education.
To do so, we’d need a series of fully funded, fully transparent, democratically run schools subject to the same rules and expectations.
Hmm. But that’s not so different than the traditional public school system we have now. Perhaps doing so would give all schools the latitude to experiment that is usually given to charter schools. But for the most part, we’ve equalized our school system and simply eliminated the worst abuses of charter and voucher schools.
We’ve also radically increased the raw number of schools in the system. And we’ve allowed students to attend schools where they don’t necessarily live, but ensured they get adequate funding no matter where they attend.
The result is real Student Choice. Parents get to decide where their children attend, and – at least in theory – all choices would be excellent.
I’ve got to admit – from a certain vantage point – it doesn’t look so bad. Sure it’s going to cost a lot of money, but maybe it’s worth it.
However, finding the cash isn’t the only obstacle. For instance, how do you adequately administrate such a system?
I cannot imagine how administrators could decide how much money their school needs from year to year if the student population can change so dramatically in that time period. How would administrators know how many teachers they need and in which subjects? How would they be able to determine the number of classrooms, how many school lunches are necessary and a host of other things? Wouldn’t it be terribly disruptive to have teachers moving from school-to-school every year following student mobility?
Additionally, how do we provide transportation with students traveling hither and thither? It would be difficult just to organize buses to get kids to school. Older students could be given bus passes, but that wouldn’t be safe for elementary and middle school kids to be traveling this way unaccompanied by adults.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be very difficult. Perhaps someone could find a system that works. However, I fear this kind of institutional instability would result in some schools being woefully understaffed and underprepared while others have too much.
Moreover, such a situation would be extremely wasteful. We’d be spending much more than we need to provide children with an excellent education. We’d be duplicating services unnecessarily. Personally, I can deal with that much more than its opposite. However, flushing tax dollars down the toilet is a bad practice.
Is there a middle ground that provides parents and students choice without wasting so much money?
Instead of providing a series of parallel education systems, supply one system that is able to deliver multiple services.
First, you’d need to fix the funding inequities mentioned above. You don’t have to double or triple what we spend, but you’d probably have to increase support somewhat. And it would have to be distributed fairly.
Then once every school has the funding necessary to give every student what he/she needs, we can work on individualizing that experience. This is exactly the opposite of current education policies from the Bush and Obama administrations.
I’m not talking about Competency Based Education, either, the latest scam to make standardization look like a student centered model. I mean no more high stakes standardized tests, no more Common Core, no more corporate education reform.
Imagine if every district allowed parents and students to choose what kind of education they got within the system. Your child wants to study music? We’ve got an excellent music program. You want your child to study a foreign language? We have plenty of award-winning programs to choose from.
Schools would be able to meet the needs of all students because they would be fully funded. No more poor schools and rich schools – just schools.
To meet this ideal, we need to forgo the fake School Choice being offered at present. We need to stop having schools fight over dwindling resources like pit bulls.
THAT would be a choice worth making.
It would be the best kind of school choice.