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Can School Choice Return to Its Progressive Roots?

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte and David Randall, director of communications for the National Association of Scholars. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I need help thinking through the issue of choice in public education. It affects my views about charters, of course, but after all most of the schools I've had a large influence on have been schools of choice. Naturally I'm exaggerating a little since I was deeply involved in my own three children's neighborhood elementary and middle school, and then on my local school board. And for two years I worked with clusters of teachers in Manhattan neighborhood schools who, with support of a sort from their principals, were interested in changing their practice—both inside their classrooms and with their colleagues. It was called the Open Corridor program, under Lillian Weber's leadership. It had an impact on many schools although usually it didn't have long term impact on most—and was usually limited to a few corridors of practitioners.

It was in frustration that I leaped at the chance to start a school from scratch with some colleagues connected with Lillian Weber's City College Workshop Center. Tony Alvarado's invitation to come to East Harlem and to be one of two starting efforts to change the district by introducing new schools of choice to add to the existing neighborhood schools. This was during NYC's short-lived decentralization period (which didn't include any high schools), so Alvarado had a lot of freedom.   

The school, Central Park East, was followed by many more, including two more CPE's. I was untroubled about choice—although Lillian Weber was concerned about it. It enabled us to show what could be done with almost entirely low-income Black and Latino children whose families chose us for many reasons, least of all because of their knowledge about and support for what we then called "open education". When Alvarado wanted us to add white children—partly for fiscal reasons and partly to fill up more space—we did so and were pleased by that too. It seemed useful to demonstrate that a school with a wide range of social class, racial, ethnic and academic skill could work well together and each feel they were being well served. District 4's example spread throughout the city, and was adopted by most NYC reformers. Small schools of choice popped up everywhere. My ventures in Boston—with the Pilot program—was in many ways a continuation of this same work.

It was the proliferation of charters that made me pause and worry about how choice could work against the values I was presumably promoting. Small schools of choice soon became a way of resegregating where integration had begun to be practiced. It also pitted teachers and parents against each other as they were asked to share limited space. And, soon it began to seem as though it was also a way of dividing a community's efforts at improving all their schools. Bus trips to Albany were conducted by competing groups with competing external sponsors—serving however the same community. And, of course, sometimes families were attending schools in districts where they didn't live and in the process, some districts lost valuable parent leaders and activists who solved their personal interests without tackling the larger dilemmas facing their neighbors.

Yet, it was this chance to do "our own thing" that opened up to the larger world some evidence about what could work for all children, not just for "those" vs  "these" ones. It brought progressive education into communities that had not otherwise known that it was an alternative possibility. And of course, it was a learning experience not only for parents and students but for the teachers and student teachers and all the others who came into our school communities.

Now that the wave of progressive alternatives has waned, and the charters that seemed at first to be simply another version of our work, have become chains with a self-interest in replacing, not improving public education—I'm rethinking the whole issue.

Is there a way to have the best of both? Is here a way that choice can be a catalyst for community organizing, not a distraction?

So I've come to you, Harry, for helping me sort out these issues.

Deb

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