Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Myth of Choice

I'm just in the mood to touch third rails these days.

What I am about to write about is something that I feel very passionately about and fully expect people to disagree with me about.  It's an issue that I am torn on myself in many ways, at a loss of what I will do when the time comes that I have to cross that bridge.

It's about school choice.  Or the myth of it.

I call it a myth because it isn't really something that many people have a real choice about.   Sure, there is a vocal group of parents who preach about the virtues of it, who hang on to the notion that their children deserve the best, that they know what is the best for their children. 

I'd like to make an argument that school choice is actually not a good thing for most kids.  And it hurts the quality of the education received by just about all of them.

Before you all go grab your torches, hear me out. 

Back before we moved here, I was in a credential program.  I student taught in a public school in a low income neighborhood.  The school had a fabulous reputation, all the employees at the university nearby would attempt to open enroll their kids there.  So you had this socio-economic dichotomy of kids.  One end of the spectrum next to the other.  We had kids with parents in jail sitting next to the children of associate deans. 

I taught there.  It wasn't a good school.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  The teachers were disinterested.  Uninvolved in what they were doing.  They pandered to the parents of the kids that mattered, the vocal ones who would raise hell if they didn't get their way.  The other kids fell by the wayside.  Sure, a handful of the kids got a great education.  Most of them didn't.  You can probably guess which parents were the ones raving about the school, getting it the reputation it had.  Little did they know.

When we moved here, part of the draw was the school system.  Not wonderful, but far better than the one in the area we lived in at the time.  At least on paper.  The schools we left didn't allow open enrollment.  The schools we moved to did. 

At the time, we were naive enough to believe that was a good thing.  I see how it isn't now.

Sure, you can handpick a school that excels in the area your child is interested in, which presumes that any 10 or 14 year old really knows what they want to be when they grow up.  It also assumes that you can just get into the school you think is best.  That there aren't ridiculous waiting lists or test-in requirements.  That the open enrollment period doesn't mean that parents who have the desire and ability to sleep overnight in the dead of winter outside a door should be the first to get their kid on the list.  It also assumes that the parents can get their student to and from the school that is best for them, assuming they get in.  Working parents, you might be out of luck here. 

My biggest issue with open enrollment is something else entirely though.  Something that most people never even think about when they are thinking about the best interests of their child.  It is this: the very idea of open enrollment removes a certain degree of investment in the school by the parents and children who are supposed to go there.  There isn't as much motivation to make it better, to work on flaws, to revamp curriculum, to raise money....well, because if we don't like it we can always just go somewhere else.  Pack up my stuff and leave.  It doesn't force anyone to care as much as they should. 

Alright, got your torches fired up yet?  I thought so.

Now, don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying that parents should stop being focused primarily on what is best for their child individually, but there is a slippery slope that starts when the pursuit of what is best for "me" begins.  At what point do the schools fail to offer the same quality of education because one is labeled "good", the other "bad"?  At what point do parents hide behind other justifications for their choice, and the schools become racially segregated?  What about the kids at those schools?  The ones there because their parent couldn't sleep overnight in a parking lot, or drive them across town every day, or pay for tutoring to get them to test into a special elite program.  What about them?  Are they less deserving of a quality public education?  Of course not.

This is the problem with school choice.  It is a myth, available only to those with the means and knowledge to truly pursue it.

Now, I won't go into which schools are which in this district.  I'm not about to make accusations about anyone.  I don't point fingers.  I don't judge what one parent does for their child, especially if it is done in the name of their best interest.  What I take fault with is the system that allows this in the first place.  The system that, in fact, encourages it.

School choice came about as a way to improve schools.  In a lot of ways, it's only stratified them more.  But, like so many things in this society we live in, once that power is placed in the hands of the masses, it's virtually impossible to take it away.  Can you imagine the uproar if open enrollment was discontinued here?  Good god

I have another year before I have to cross that bridge.  Before I have to decide whether my oldest will go to the school in the boundaries or whether I attempt to open enroll him somewhere else.   More likely than not, he will go where his friends go, assuming I can get him in there.  Wherever there is.  Middle school without pre-existing friendships is not a torture I will subject him to.  I lived it.  It was hell. 

I find it laughable that the school choice expo here is held after the start of open enrollment.  It's almost like the district is just throwing a bone to the parents who don't really have a choice, trying to convince them they do.  By the time the expo was held this year, the coveted spots in the so-called desirable schools were gone. 

So you see, there really isn't so much choice in the choice as advertised. 

Unless you know how to game the system. 

And that, my friends, isn't what public school is supposed to be about at all.

1 comment:

  1. When you add in the massive and widely undiscussed problem of teacher turnover, kids at the poorest and lowest preforming schools get whacked again on top of the "choice" parents and students fleeing the sinking ship. 50% of teachers leave teaching within 5 years, and it is these schools that suffer the highest rates of turnover.

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