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Multiple Choice on Choice

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"Place yourself back in First Grade," Matthew Ladner writes on edspresso.com. Then, choose where you'd like to attend the public schools: (a) Washington, D.C., (b) Los Angeles, (c) Chicago, or (d) none of the above. Did you choose (d)? Uh-oh. "If those schools are not suitable for you in theory, then they are not suitable for low-income children in practice," writes Ladner, the vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute. Writing for the Center for Education Reform's edspresso blog, Ladner opines that children in inner-city schools face very limited opportunities and that, if all children faced such limits, the system would change. He advocates for reform on two fronts: "expand school choice options for all parents and completely overhaul the resource development and compensation system for teachers."

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Call me a weirdo, or a liberal, but a long time ago--before I even had children--I decided that I was not going to be a part of the "white flight" to the suburbs that was evident as northern districts were affected by desegregation. I bought a house in an urban neighborhood--a choice that has enriched my life in many ways.

The district that my children attend educates the majority of the children in the county/region--a fact easily forgotten because of the number of surrounding suburban districts. Our district was recently named the largest in the state. Does this mean that there is a great public concern about the quality of education available. No. Among certain income groups it is assumed that parents who care just don't live here--or else they home-school or pay tuition. Understanding that all our futures are bound up in the ability of this district to educate students just doesn't compute. Our state, like many, faces court challenges to the lack of a state role in providing equity. Yet every attempt to even equalize funding gets bound up in guarantees that none of the rich and powerful districts experience loss. And we don't have the will to raise all ships to their level.

My liberal heart supports public education, and coming in I knew how to make sure my kids had access to the best in the district--frequently comparable to the suburbs. My second child has disabilities, however, which limited us to some of the worst schools (oddly), and I have watched the district resegregate and make poor curricular choices. Sadly, one of the factors most likely to bring reform is the availability of charter schools. Even though they are a mixed bag educationally, every year the district watches more students leaving--and taking their state support with them.

Right now the district is digging out finanacially from years of denial (this will go away, they will come back) and refusal to adapt. Fiscally, their per pupil $ have increased--but they have lacked the agility to adapt--so resources have become stretched over too many buildings and administrators--until they finally hit the wall and had to close many buildings in one year and let a number of teachers go. Even this wasn't sufficient to prevent a loss of services (fewer hours in the school day). Teachers are mad, parents are alienated and students are suffering. But the district has been dragged at last to the reality that they haven't been doing all that well.

Will this result in long-term improvement? Well, I don't know. We still haven't changed the overall mindset that educating children is a social responsibility. Good and better education oughtn't be related to the family one has the fortune to be born into. Ladner has hit the nail on the head.

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