Class Warfare Blog

October 1, 2012

School Choice—Sounds Good Doesn’t It?

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 11:37 am
Tags: , , , ,

Politicians everywhere are touting charter schools and voucher programs as panaceas for what ails our public schools. The question is: is having more choice a good thing? We tend to say “yes” in a knee-jerk fashion, but is it?

Is more choice a good thing?
Often it is, but you can see where this leads to. Modern supermarkets provide bewildering levels of choice for everything from mayonnaise to mortgage plans. (What your supermarket doesn’t have a bank in it yet?) What we don’t often realize is that instead of checking out all of the choices available, we default to our “favorite” brand of mayonnaise because it is just too much work to examine all of the others.

If you were methodical, you could buy the smallest jar of each kind of mayonnaise and taste test each to determine which is best. Even checking which brand gives you the most mayo for the least cost is somewhat daunting. And don’t get me started on breakfast cereal! Who the heck ever convinced us that stuff was good for us in the first place?

So, if there were real “school choice” what would it look like? Okay, let’s say you have a voucher for your kid going to high school. How many high schools are within a reasonable distance from your home? Let’s say there are three. (So, your choices start out being severely limited by something as simple as the number of high school age students in your community.) Let’s also say that one of the three is really good and there are hundreds and hundreds of people on its waiting list but you aren’t one of them. Therefore there are two real options.

“The point I am trying to make is your thinking
has to go a little farther than ‘“choice is good.’”

How are you going to get reliable information on which of these two schools would be better for your child . . . not for just any generic child, but for your musically and mathematically gifted child? Lots of luck figuring that out. Do you think there will be “shopping guides” springing up to help you with your choice? How do you think you will be able to tell if the guide is any good (or just selling reviews like so many do)? More choice.

But, people say that, if there were “real competition,” good schools would be popping up like mushrooms. Ah, so a school having been open for three years with shiny brochures looks really attractive. So, you bite and give them your child to teach and your voucher to pay for it. Assuming in the first place that the voucher would be enough to pay for it, a very unlikely assumption, what are you going to do when that school declares bankruptcy mid year. (Half of all new businesses fail in the first five years. I know, I have had a few.) They can’t return your voucher as they spent it trying to stay solvent. Home schooling may be an option because the remaining “public” schools will not be in a place to do any charity work.

Opening and running a school and doing a good job of it is one of the most difficult things I can imagine. (I think being a high school principal is the hardest job to do well in the country.) I also can’t imagine all of the new start-ups will thrive or even survive.

The point I am trying to make is your thinking has to go a little farther than “choice is good.”

When someone gives you an argument like “if there were “real competition,” good schools would be popping up like mushrooms” try to think of counter examples, like, say, the food deserts in black communities. There is a huge need for stores to sell healthy foods in urban black neighborhoods. Do you see the major chains rushing in to fill that need? Do you see anyone rushing in to serve that need? No? Then what makes you think those same neighborhoods will see a rush of new schools cropping up to harvest those school vouchers?

This actually sounds a lot like another “I’ve got mine, Jack” plan where the well to do folks will get their nice, choice school systems (which they already have) and poor people will just have to fend for themselves.

Wasn’t this why we created public schools in the first place? (A major part of which was to Americanize immigrants from foreign soils.) The same need exists now but the reasons are not just integration of immigrants into our society but more we need economic integration of our poorest communities into the mainstream economy. Education is the best way to accomplish that, but not education as we are doing it now.

And simplistic thinking, like “choice is good” isn’t going to solve our problems.

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