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School Closings, School Choice, and Parental Voice

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Last fall, two marches occurred within weeks of each other, and it is useful to consider both within a single frame.  One included parents and community members in Chicago, who marched to protest the closing of a traditional public school--namely, the Walter H. Dyett High School.  This group, which also engaged in a weeks-long hunger strike, ended their march in front of President Obama's house in Chicago.  The other march, which also involved parents, occurred in New York and was in support of charter schools and more school choice.  18,000 parents, activists, and students marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest, essentially, Mayor DeBlasio's lack of support for charter schools.    Both protest groups included a high proportion of parents of color in their ranks, and allegations of racism on the part of government officials--in either selectively choosing schools to close or denying choice to poorer families of color--were not far from the surface in either context. 

So here's the key question:  When should we listen to parents when it comes to decisions about education policy and practice?  The juxtaposition of these two marches provides an opportunity to reflect on the fact that advocates for particular policies tend to be inconsistent in their views about listening to parents.  Supporters of the protest about closing schools in Chicago presumably feel strongly that parents and community members should have a say as to whether a neighborhood school should be closed for under-enrollment or poor performance.  A school is an integral part of the community, these advocates would say, and the views of parents should be seriously considered if they believe the school is worth saving.   Similarly, supporters of the march for charter schools would undoubtedly point to the waiting lists for charter schools in places like New York City and argue:  parents are speaking, and you should listen by encouraging the creation of more charter schools.

My sense is that those who support parental voice when it comes to the closing of traditional public schools do not give much credence to parental voice when it comes to expanding the number of charter schools, and that the same is true in reverse.  This may be due to the fact that those who oppose the closing of neighborhood public schools in Chicago are probably not huge fans of charter schools, and those who are fans of charter schools are not likely big supporters of keeping traditional public schools open in Chicago if they consider them to be failing.

That much is fine.  One could plausibly justify closing "failing" public schools and opening more charter schools, and one could plausibly justify keeping open traditional public schools and limiting charter schools.  That is a healthy debate, but it is not my point here.

The point is simply this:  Shouldn't those who believe parents deserve serious consideration when schools are slated for closing be equally respectful of parents having a voice about charter schools and school choice, and vice-versa?   

Which leads back to the basic, key question:  How much voice should parents have when it comes to important education questions, like school closings and charter schools?  I would think, at the very least, that the answer in both instances should be consistent.  To give a concrete example:  some states have enacted parent "trigger" laws, which vary from state to state but essentially empower parents to force managerial changes when they are dissatisfied with school performance or when certain objective benchmarks have not been met.  Would supporters of such trigger laws also support "anti-closure triggers," which would allow parents to force schools to stay open even though the state or district would like to close them because of "poor" performance?  If not, why not?

As a parent, I can only say that I would hope the voices of parents are respected equally in both contexts.  This does not mean that parents should be given a veto or that their demands should be always be met, but simply that their voices should be heard and seriously considered.  As educators, we risk the inevitable tragedy of hubris when we privilege our own views over the views of parents.

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The opinions expressed in Making the Case: Key Questions in Education Debates are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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