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Choice Is Messy. So Be It.

Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep writes again to Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,

False dichotomy alert!

Your last post, "Why Voting Beats 'Voting With One's Feet,'" implies an either/or proposition.  If you were able to maintain perfect staff and parent peace at your school through voting alone, I bow to your wisdom and statesmanship.  But the ability to vote with one's feet is an essential safety valve and indispensible parental prerogative.  With few exceptions, I see no reason to force a child to remain in a school where he or she isn't learning, or where the parent has a serious conflict and there are alternatives available. 

Our earliest exchanges explored the twin imperatives of "educating for democracy and liberty." Voting is democracy.  Voting with one's feet is liberty.  We needn't privilege one or the other, and a healthy school system can and should accommodate both. 

This is not a controversial idea. Our laws function in large measure to protect individual liberties from the tyranny of majorities.  Why do we think schools should be exempt from these bedrock civic and legal principles?

Indeed, if we are going to have a compulsory education system, it seems unethical—immoral is not too strong a word—not to allow the broadest possible latitude in satisfying the requirements we impose on our fellow citizens.

Choice is messy.  It's inconvenient.  So be it. 

As I write, a Politico story by Stephanie Simon is setting tongues wagging throughout the edusphere.  It points out that publicly financed voucher programs in 14 states "will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies." 

Frankly, I'm more concerned with the billions spent on schools that reduce reading to a soulless regimen of "metacognitive comprehension skills" and endless test prep at untold cost to basic literacy.  Belief in creationism troubles me less than a belief in learning styles, for which there is roughly equal scientific support.  I'm less upset with faith-based instruction than blind faith in 21st-century Skills and the fashionable idea that it's more important to work in groups and practice communicating than to learn and master any particular body of knowledge. As Simon noted, "decades of litigation have established that public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design."  But there's plenty else we teach purely on faith.

Choice makes people cranky in our highly judgmental times.  Slate not long ago ran a silly and simplistic screed titled, "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person." A thoughtful and better informed observer, Dana Goldstein, adjudged the rising tide of progressive homeschoolers "fundamentally illiberal" since it is "rooted in distrust of the public sphere [and] class privilege" and the "dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large."

Several of the regular commenters on this blog accept the view of choice and charters as an anti-democratic "siphoning off the children of concerned and functional parents."  I take the point as far as it goes, but that's not very far. Lack of fairness offends your democratic sensibilities?  Mine, too.  But coercion offends my sense of liberty.

"We conflate meritocracy with inherited advantage and luck when it comes to the lives of the young," you wrote.  I'm quite certain you're right.  How we perceive this matters less than how we address it.  Surely the answer is not a Harrison Bergeron vision of fairness with those of us in positions of power playing Handicapper General, placing artificial limits or restrictions on talent in the name of "fairness." It's simply not a parent or child's job to accept a substandard education for the greater good.

Finally, Deb, I was struck by your observation of "how differently we school the rich and the poor."  In this regard I depart sharply from the ed reform orthodoxy, which holds that the greatest difference between rich schools and poor schools is the teachers.  I'm not convinced. For years I dropped my daughter off at one of New York City's best-regarded private schools, then got back on the subway to teach at one of our lowest-performing public schools.  The teachers in my school were, in the aggregate, better trained and prepared.  They had to be.  We faced challenges that the teachers at my daughter's school would be utterly unequipped to handle. What my daughter's school had that mine lacked was a first-rate school culture and a brilliant and rigorous curriculum that introduced children to the world and refused to pander to them in the name of student engagement. 

I'm four-square with you on your refusal to tolerate unfairness in education.  But the greatest unfairness is being told to be patient while powerful and well-meaning people take care of it for the good of all.  I have a one-word response to that: No. 

Actually, allow me two words:  Hell, no.

Best,

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio
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