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Parent-Empowerment Dynamics: On Avoiding the Neighbor Kids

I've enjoyed corresponding with a number of people about school choice and charters lately, and the issue of parent empowerment has come up repeatedly. I see two possible ways that parent empowerment can function:

1. Parents become empowered to demand excellence from their community schools, and advocate successfully for improvements in the school, benefiting all students.

2. Parents become empowered to pursue alternatives for their own children, and use their advocacy to shift their students into an alternative tier of schools.

The first dynamic is essentially one of advocacy, in which parents insist on quality. The problem is that such insistence is not always fruitful; too many parents have been ignored by school districts for too long to continue to believe that advocacy alone is an adequate strategy. This lack of confidence has led to the "parent trigger" laws that empower parents to make legally binding decisions about who runs their schools.

The second is a public-sector instantiation of a dynamic that has long existed in the private school sector: We don't want our kids to attend school with their neighbors—at least, not with all of them—so we pull them out and enroll them in another school.

I would like to believe that this isn't truly the motivation, and that's it's really about school quality rather than whom your children attend school with. But years of giving school tours and conversations with hundreds of parents have led me to the conclusion that we have both private schools and charter schools (as well as public-school choice programs such as open enrollment and magnets) because many families don't want to send their kids to school with the neighbor kids.

There is no data to support the "It's about school quality" argument; as I've said recently, we simply do not collect data on how schools perform on an efficiency basis. Overall achievement scores don't tell you how your child will fare in a school; they simply serve as a proxy for "Does this school have worthy classmates for my child?"

From a social justice standpoint, I can appreciate and applaud the desire to empower more parents to seek the best for their children. Everyone wants their kids to have a peer group that will provide a positive example. When a school has a high concentration of students who are not on a good trajectory, it's certainly reasonable for parents to seek out a school with a student body that reflects their aspirations for their children. This, I think is much of the appeal of opt-in charter and magnet schools: even if the teaching is no different, having a motivated, on-task group of classmates can have a huge impact on how students perform and how they view themselves.

It certainly isn't fair that the privileged and wealthy can establish their own schools of choice while everyone else is left with whatever the nearby public school can offer. Hopefully it's good, but what if it's not? School choice, through charters, public school choice, magnets, or other mechanisms, is a perfectly reasonable way to extend this same opportunity to more families. I can't help but be troubled, though, by the social capital effects that occur when we use public dollars to purposefully create a two-tier system. We have to consider all of our students, including those who are (literally) left behind by choice programs.

Public schools (and, I would argue, all public services) work best when they serve everyone, but the role of privilege is to enable people to opt out of aspects of public life they find undesirable. I buy my books from Amazon instead of visiting the library because I find it preferable and have the money to exercise this preference. I wouldn't really be comfortable with the government telling me I have to obtain my books from the public library, and similarly, I wouldn't be comfortable with a system in which private schools were illegal.

Charters and public school choice are an interesting case. We want low-income families to be as empowered as the wealthy to seek educational opportunity for their kids, but we don't want our policies to exacerbate the inequitable distribution of financial resources and social capital.

How do we ensure that school choice functions to promote excellent education for all students, not just those who opt into schools of choice? And how do we conceptualize the "avoiding the neighbors" dynamic?

Underneath all of this is of course the possibility that families can simply move to a new district or neighborhood to get into a different school. This possibility is most open to the most privileged, and least open to the lowest-income families. Given that the power of moving to a new neighborhood trumps the power of gaining access to a desirable charter school, I don't think the second type of choice I outlined above—in which engaged low-income parents access a higher-quality tier of schools in their own neighborhoods—poses any serious threat to the good of the whole. Given the immense privileges that wealth provides, there is nothing unreasonable about creating choice opportunities for lower-income families.

But we should acknowledge the existence of these dynamics, and think carefully about the consequences when we treat school choice as if it benefits all students.

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