Word Attack: “Choice”
What does “school choice” mean?
In my head, school choice is about providing parents with options, so they can choose the school community that best serves their children’s needs and interests. It’s about families getting a fair, accurate assessment of the local schools (that includes in-depth information about what kinds of programs each school offers and how they approach the task of educating children, not just opaque school ranking information) and then choosing the best fit for their children. For those who don’t have the money to choose private alternatives or move to a place with “better” public schools, public school choice efforts can create greater flexibility for families to choose schools that work for them.
Yet in too many places, especially low-income communities and/or communities of color, “choice” isn’t actually a choice. Rather than being able to develop a strong local ecosystem of high-quality choices, these communities are being forced to accept schools they don’t want, at the expense of supporting and improving the existing schools. Student displacement and disrupted learning has become common.
I applaud those who, with pure intentions and an abundance of heart, wish to expand high-quality learning opportunities for all children. (Likewise, I vehemently object to those who are merely looking for tax breaks, are attempting to exorcise their White/upper class guilt by “saving” the poor and the marginalized, are out to make money off of public schools, and/or use their power and influence to impose their ideological will on other people.)
However– and it’s really sad that such an obvious statement bears repeating– “choice” is not a choice if you don’t choose it!
It is inaccurate to label a scheme a “school choice plan” if:
- the “school of choice” invades or replaces an existing school over the express wishes of the affected community. If families who want to choose their current school cannot do so, then they’ve not been given a true choice.
- not everyone can access the different choices. If transportation isn’t provided for community members who can’t drive kids to out-of-neighborhood schools, or if they’re required to spend more than they can afford to pay out-of-pocket for public transportation, then they do not really have a choice. Same goes for schools that don’t meet the needs of English language learners or special education students. There should be more than one option for these families, too.
- community members have not been meaningfully involved in the process of developing the choice plan.
We need to remember something that has been all-too-frequently forgotten: all people and all communities (not just wealthier and/or Whiter ones) have the right to determine how they wish to educate their children, as long as they do so with respect for the law. Schools do not belong to the district or the state, they belong to the communities they’re meant to serve. Their desires need to be honored, and where they disagree, an honest effort should be made to satisfy everyone’s needs.