Can We Use the Case of Public Parks to Critique the Logic of School Choice?

Can we use the case of public parks to critique the logic behind school choice? Some think so. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “A witty saying proves nothing.” That is the quote that came to mind when I saw someone post the following on Twitter recently:

What do you think? Some might read it and join in a resounding cheer for this witty statement about some people’s belief that school choice is “ridiculous” on the same grounds as the fictional public park statement. The problem is that this is not really an argument against school choice. When we use such comparisons, they can be clever and stick with people, but we must also ask whether they are inviting us into a candid and substantive consideration of the true affordances and limitations of school choice, and there are indeed both.

Yes, the example with the parks does sound a bit ridiculous, but it only takes a few moments of listing the similarities and differences between public parks and public schools to recognize that this comparison comes rather close to what some might call ridiculous.

If we are going to work with the park comparison, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

  1. It is mandatory for people of a certain age to attend school, but not so with parks.
  2. When a park is unsafe, you don’t have to go to it. When you are in a community with an unsafe school and it is your only option, you are still required by law to attend (unless of course you are wealthy enough for the private school or can afford to have a parent stay home to homeschool).
  3. What would you say to a person who is told that it is un-Amercian to not send their kid to an unsafe park every day, arguing that you should send your kid to that park while fighting to make it safer? If your child is harmed during that time, we can chalk that up your American duty. Yet, those with the money and time to travel further for a safe park are insulated from this same “American duty.”
  4. My point is that we don’t force people to go to parks and then improve them. We improve parks and then people start going to them.
  5. When a park is poor in quality, people vote by not going to it. If there are better options, they take advantage of those choices. My family does that all the time. We used to go a little further to the park with the best playground, the bets hiking, or whatever else aligned with our goals. Note that quality also wasn’t a simple measure on some standardized test of park quality either. We made a choice based upon our goals and values and what the park could offer.
  6. Your kid loves skateboarding and the closest park doesn’t allow or have room for skateboard. Yet, there is a great skateboard park about a mile away so you opt to help your kid go there instead.
  7. Now imagine a local park where the officials decided that it was a public health essential that parks include “how to” posters related to the park official’s viewpoint on certain political and hot social issues, and much more. Maybe you agree with those positions and maybe you do not, but you don’t have to go to that park. Mandatory daily attendance at the park does not exist, so you can opt to play or walk somewhere else if somewhere else is available. If not, you can fight to change that park, but if those in charge reject your complaint, that is it. Not only that but imagine the park officials ridiculing your complaint as being too liberal, too conservative, closed-minded, backward, socialist or something else. There is limited actual openness to a substantive debate about what goes into the park.
  8. If there are park officials on duty who are not the type of role model that you want for your children, you express concern, and your concerns are disregarded, what next? Those park officials might rank about the importance of legalizing marijuana, locking our borders to illegal immigrants, making oil illegal, or some other position. That is not their primary job as park officials but their ideas quite often come out in subtle and direct ways. Again you express concern but the park board and park administration supports the park official.

I’m not saying that these are always issues for people, but the simple public park to public school comparison make in the above poster does not help to surface such important candid discussion. Or, since I’m writing this as a response, maybe it does.

The Power of Choice is Differentiation, Not Competition

I’ve written about this more than once before, but the context about which I’m writing is always a little different each time. This time I’m focusing on choice and charter schools. While some advocates for school choice do so based on the theory of competition, I am an advocate for them, but for an entirely different reasons. As I explain in the title, the power of school choice is differentiation, not competition.

One argument for the benefit of choice programs goes like this. If we give families and students choice on which schools to attend, then schools will experience competition for the students and be driven to improvements that make people choose them over other options. Competition is touted as the secret sauce in this alleged recipe for educational reform and success.

There is at least one major flaw with this link of thinking. Competition doesn’t necessarily create improvements, especially not improvements valued equally by all the key stakeholders – most importantly parents and students. We have evidence that there is competition conjured by choice programs, as indicated in “Every Kid is Money”: Market-Like Competition and School Leader Strategies (Jabbar, Huriya, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2015). According to this study, administrators in New Orleans choice schools did “experience market pressures”, but that did not necessarily translate into school improvements. Besides, we do not all agree upon what we mean by a school improvement. As long as we are thinking about competition among largely similar school models, we are missing the true point and power of choice, charters and many other K-12 education reform experiments.

When charter schools first launched, many people thought of them as incubators for promising innovations in education. The charter would test a practice or model and, if it succeeded, people hoped that it could be transferred back into the more traditional schools. Yet, the problem with this line of thinking is the same as with the competition conjured by choice programs. We are not all keeping score the same way. What is a success to one is not a success to another. Besides, I’m not convinced that we should have a detailed and universal standard for keeping score when it comes to school success.

Parents and students have different needs and goals. Communities have different needs and goals. Yes, there are some factors upon which we can all agree. We all agree that schools should be safe and that student learning should take place. Yet, what we mean by safety and student learning continues to vary as it should. That is because, as much as we aspire to quantify performance in school, schooling is a cultural expression and an art as much or more than it is a science. Science is part of the culture, but it is not the same thing.

What makes choice and charter schools special and valuable is that they are opportunities to celebrate differentiation in philosophies and approaches to schooling that play by often wildly different rules. This commitment to creating space for a diversity of schooling models is not only the secret sauce in the education reform recipe, it is a secret sauce to many fundamental American ideals.

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The Value of School Choice & Charters in a Compulsory Education System

Ideology – “The ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.

Values – “A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life

– Oxford Dictionary Online

Compulsory without ChoiceRight now the United States has a compulsory public education system (with compulsory education being adopted across the country from 1852 to 1918). In the past, parents were fined for not complying, and there was even the threat of taking children away from parents who resisted the laws of compulsory schooling. Since education is required, it is also provided for free. After all, you can’t require someone to attend a school that they can’t afford. And there are also provisions for allowing people the option of homeschooling or attending a private school. In a context like this, I see immense value (even importance) in maintaining a commitment to school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. My argument is not made by claiming that charters outperform other schools, or that they even do a better job in some easily quantifiable manner. It is also not made without recognizing abuses of some people with charters and choice, and the need to refine policy to address such problems and to demand accountability and transparency (as evidenced by a recent news release where the State of Michigan stated that 11 authorizers are “at risk of suspension” to create new charters). My position is instead informed by the role of ideology and values in education.

Look at writings in support of compulsory school from around the world, and these are some of the arguments that you see. 1) It creates a shared socialization experience for all children. 2) It ensures a baseline level of education for all children. 3) It gives children a chance to “escape” the ideals and beliefs of their family. Let’s consider each of these.

“It ensures a baseline level of education for all children.”

There are several important aspects to this claim, but I will focus upon two. First, I accept that there is indeed some truth to the claim, although we certainly do not have a baseline level of knowledge and skill among students today. And even when we see a baseline in given schools or districts, this does not address important issues, like the fact that some of the most valuable knowledge and skills that students learn comes from beyond school. It happens through socialization in school and community; through informal play, experimentation and exploration; through having mentors and role models in life; through access to books in the home; through the groups and communities in which people participate beyond school. These have immense influence on the future of young people. There is something to be said about certain baselines, like having people pass a basic driver’s test before getting a license, but there is not as clear of an agreed upon baseline in K-12 schooling, which leads us to the second point. What is the baseline? Who determines it? Who should or does get to decide what students do and do not learn…and how the learning takes place? That leads us quickly to the other two arguments for compulsory education.

“It gives children a chance to ‘escape’ the ideals and beliefs of their family by experiencing a “neutral” education.” and “It creates a shared socialization experience for all children.”

Visit a dozen public schools around the United States. Sit in the classes. Interview the students and teachers. Then try repeating this statement about the public education system providing a “neutral” education. Public education is deeply ideological and values-laden. The curriculum in schools is not as neutral as the criteria for a driver’s education program. There are strong ideological positions about everything from the human condition and human nature to ethics and social issues.

It can’t be avoided. Look at government and politics. Do we have ideology-free environments there?   Even in classes and schools where teachers try to hide their personal ideologies, beliefs and convictions; they show up. And if a school achieved complete ideological neutrality (which I contend is not possible), do we really want to provide an education that is free from any ideological discourse? If we do, then we have promoted a new ideology, one that is a-ideological. Look at the closing statement from President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, 2014. What are his closing words? “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” Is that ideologically neutral? How about our laws? What about the Bill of Rights? These are full of values and ideology. 

Ideologies are not just about matters of religions and ethics. They are also about beliefs and convictions regarding what constitutes a good education. These venture into what is learned and/or taught, but also into how it is learned and taught. The environment and culture is part of what is learned in a school. School leaders and teachers have strong convictions about how students should learn, behave, and act in school; but there is no universal agreement on these matters. Some value more student-led and democratic visions of schooling, where others argue for strong standards-based models that mandate to teachers what to teach and students what to learn. Some promote test-driven models while others advocate for more narrative feedback and portfolio assessment. Some promote a direct instruction vision where others embrace a project-based learning model. These all teach values and ideologies. They influence students in largely different ways, impacting how they think about themselves, others, and the world around them.

The Role of Choice

So, given this reality, what happens if we have a compulsory education system across the United States that provides little to no student or family choice on what and how things are learned? This is not a neutral education. Do we really want to repeat the errors of past generations in the United States when we forced native American children into boarding schools to “socialize” them? “Kill the native to save the man.” The United States does not have a track record of providing a neutral public education to young people. This is an education intended to teach the values and ideologies of the majority or of those with the greatest voice and influence in a given public school or school district. This is not an attack on public education, only a defense of choice in face of the fact that all schools (public and private) teach values and are influenced by ideology. Each public school and/or district haas control and influence over the values and ideologies that emerge in the school(s). And control and influence without individuals having choice is a dangerous and Orwellian path.

This is where school choice, voucher programs, and charter schools fit into my own philosophy of education. If we are going to require students to attend school, and school is incapable of being truly neutral, then it seems to me that the best option is to at least provide families and students with choice about the type of schools they choose to attend.

This is why debates about school choice can’t be reduced to comparisons of student performance and achievement on standardized tests, because more is taught and learned in school than what is measured on these tests. Education is about more than what certain groups choose to define as the best measures of student achievement, because those choices about what to test also reflect ideologies and values.

Without choice, vouchers, and charters; compulsory education mandates that students get an education into certain ideologies and values unless they have the money or life situation to afford homeschooling or a private school. Why should educational freedom related to one’s ideologies, beliefs, values and convictions only be available to those who can pay for it? That seems to set up a system that limits the rights of families based upon their economic situation.

What a second. We don’t let people choose which court to go to when they are on trial. Why should schools be any different? No, but we do have a jury of peers and legal counsel on both sides who have say in the makeup of that jury. That is not how we hire administrators and teachers in our local public schools, nor is it how we adopt curriculum or decide upon educational philosophies that shape the schools. And the court example allows choice and influence at the individual level…for each new person on trial. We don’t typically allow such choice on an individual level in our traditional schools.

Among those who argue against charters and choice, they are often some of the same who argue for putting the decisions in the hands of schools and teachers, not politicians and businesses. I agree with that in large part, but it does not solve the values and ideological issues that I’ve described so far. Note that the value is pro-teacher and pro-school (which is commendable), but there is nothing about leaving decisions to parents and students. What about pro-parent, pro-family, and pro-student? This is a massive philosophical and ideological difference among people in the United States. If some are trying to close down charters and remove choice and vouchers as an option from families, then we must give them an immense amount of choice and influence on what is taught/learned and the school culture.

Another position of some of the same people who argue against choice, vouchers and charters is the need to create a national curriculum that states what children in every grade should learn. Note that this is also about mandating values and ideologies on a national level in public schools. Not only do some people argue against choice and charters, but some of them also want to mandate the values and ideas taught to people in the only free education options that would be available to families. I realize that people will challenge me on this point, arguing that there is nothing that ideological about what we see in nationalized curricula, but that strikes me as being amazingly uninformed about the wonderfully diverse set of beliefs and values that come together in the people of the United States.

The vision of this nation is not to make everyone the same. We do strive toward certain shared values associated with the US Constitution, but schooling ventures into far more ideological and values-laden areas. As long as that is the case, I remain a strong advocate for the importance of choice, vouchers and charters; not to create some sort of healthy competition to improve the overall quality of education (because I don’t see evidence that it works that way), but because I believe in a vision of the United States that honors and values the Bill of Rights.

I recognize that there are serious challenges and problems in some choice, voucher and charter programs around the country…and they need to be addressed. Yet, I can’t support getting rid of them as long as we maintain a commitment to compulsory education.