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School Choice That Might Work

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I'm trying to figure out where it is we agree and disagree, Harry. I've often made clear, I think, that some parochial schools, some private schools, and some home schooling situations are conducted in the true spirit of democracy, mutual respect, and care. They often create a strong sense of community around their declared "missions" in ways much harder for public schools to do, above all public neighborhood schools where families with different missions so often come uneasily together.

There are two separate issues: my respect for such schools and my view as to whether they should receive public funding. To what extent public funding comes with "strings" attached, and what kind of strings are appropriate, is worthy of discourse. If they want public funding they should and must, in my view, accept such strings. Even private schools and parochial schools come with some strings attached in order to meet certain state requirements that allows them to exist. These are, at minimum, restrictions around issues of health and safety. But whether they can be one-sex, limited to families of particular religious faith etc. is quite a different matter. Private schools may not invite children back "next year" for any reason they choose—except, I believe, if it can be demonstrated that it was for being a member of certain "protected" classes of people. Not so for public schools. 

Public schools not only receive public money but must be open to all citizens within its jurisdiction as determined by democratically chosen authorities. State and city rules lay down obligations of many sorts that must be followed, as well as transparency in all matters including how they spend their money. So too, the legal rights of children, parents and teachers are determined by public bodies and exceptions require public approval. As you know, I strongly believe that public schools should, for the sake of the children's education, be intentional democracies.

My hope would be that if and when more regular public schools have such autonomies that we would no longer have charters vs regular public schools. It would prove a problem only for chains, like KIPP,  where its schools are essentially franchises. But, it would not exclude networks, like those public Montessori schools, that belong to Montessori networks. Or as with the Coalition of Essential Schools whose schools were members of a voluntary network and the "central office" had no power to dictate to or close them and they had the right to leave the network at will. In the mid 90s we proposed such a public-school district in NYC—where designated schools were invited to join networks that they would be accountable to, in return for far greater freedom (more like those charters have).  

In the long run, I do not believe such schools would need to be "innovative." Nor would they need to agree on a label. However, if they wanted to be a school of choice, in order to demonstrate something that no single neighborhood was likely to agree on under current circumstances, they would need to describe their innovations. Hopefully, where these innovations proved successful and popular they would influence neighborhood schools.

The latter I'm not too sure about! As I've noted before, there may be other sensible ways to create choice without destroying neighborhood schools that include the full range of citizens, and to create districts that are, by design, integrated by race and class. But that seems to me to make sense only if we also were committed to state-sponsored housing policies that produced a more inclusive definition of community. The housing patterns we now have, it's well to remember, were the creation of frankly racist policies in effect after World War II and not altered in the seventy years since. 

I'm struggling with these trade-offs, but I hope this gives readers the gist of where I'm heading. And something, maybe, for you—or readers—to argue with me about, Harry!

Deb

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