Making “Choice” Meaningful
Like thousands of observers around the country, I was outraged over the decision in the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar this week. Williams-Bolar is single mother from Akron, Ohio who was charged and convicted as a felon for lying about her daughters’ residency status in order to send them to the highly-regarded Copley-Fairlawn schools. As a result of the conviction, her future as a teacher is in jeopardy, and she faces possible eviction from the public housing project where she and her daughters live. Her father, whose Copley address she used to unlawfully gain access to the Copley-Fairlawn school district, also faces charges of grand theft for his role in the affair.
Though I don’t condone lying, I agree with those who believe her punishment was excessive and that she should be pardoned. More importantly, this woman should never have been put in the position of having to commit a felony in order to secure a decent education for her children.
It should be our goal as a nation to ensure that every school, in every neighborhood, is a high-quality school. As I’ve said before, parents should not have to “move, or pay extra money, or have to struggle to ensure that their child gets a quality education.” And they certainly shouldn’t have to risk their livelihoods, the roof over their heads, or incarceration to ensure that their children are safe and well-served at school. But as this case makes clear, as we work toward improvement in all schools, there is a pressing need for real choices for families who cannot afford to move or pay private school tuition.
The last time I wrote about school choice, I tried to clarify some disingenuous speech around the issue. Though I am a supporter of school choice, I do not support the way the idea of “choice” has been used to cover actions that actually take choices away from some families and communities. Instead, I believe a true movement toward school choice for all families should:
- extend to greater parental input in school-based decision-making. Families’ agency in the schooling process shouldn’t begin and end with the act of choosing a school. After all, while “voting with one’s feet” should always be an option, it can’t be the only way to resolve problems. It’s disruptive to children’s educations, and it’s not always possible (especially for those who live in an area without many high-quality choices, or who live in more remote places). I’ve heard stories of public and charter schools with abysmal practices regarding parental input; that needs to change.
- be part of a movement to improve all schools, not a way to get around that responsibility. Current school choice schemes in low-income communities essentially give a few kids the chance to escape under-funded, low-performing schools, without improving the overall system to which the remaining children are still consigned. Given that private schools aren’t required to accept anyone, and that charter schools aren’t reliably better than traditional neighborhoods, choice alone will never create great schooling experiences for all children. (And it’s cruel to continually repeat that “public schools should compete for their students” without giving them the resources they need to do so. That’s not an improvement strategy; that’s a cop-out.) But choice, combined with efforts to ensure an equitable distribution of resources among all schools, can, by allowing students and families to choose (or have input into creating) schools that suit their learning needs and desires.
- be multi-dimensional. When we discuss public school choice, especially for parents in low-income communities or communities of color, the conversation focuses primarily on just two elements of school quality: achievement (primarily performance on state tests) and safety. More affluent families get to decide among schools with different philosophies and foci (“Montessori, Reggio Emilia, integrated/theme-based, or traditional?”). Meanwhile, in less affluent communities, it’s often the case that “choice” for these families is between a traditional school that feels like a prison, or a charter school that feels like boot camp. (And in both kinds of schools, instruction is often too focused on test preparation.) Parents in all communities deserve to have more information than just dry statistics, and they deserve more choices than this. Why not create school reporting systems that highlight different schools’ strengths and specialties, instead of just ranking them based on their scores? A holistic appraisal of schools would not only be more helpful to schools trying to improve their performance, but the information could also be used to allow families to make a truly informed choice about which school is best for their kids.
Rather than criminalizing parents who use the only means they can to access quality schooling options, we should be thinking about why someone would find it necessary to take such a drastic action in the first place– and taking action to make it unnecessary. We should also be working to make sure that all families can choose for positive reasons, among different positive options– “Will this school help my budding artist? Will they sustain and nurture her creativity?”– instead of seeing school choice as an escape valve.