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How Not to Argue for School Choice

I think school choice is a helpful thing. While I don't think it, in and of itself, will yield great teaching and learning, I do think it can play a very positive role in promoting coherent school cultures, empowering parents and educators, and fostering a healthy array of educational options. Of course, many advocates see choice as much more than that. I sympathize with their passion, but think their admirable enthusiasm is leading them to make their case in ways that are tone-deaf or counterproductive. Here are three pro-choice lines of argument that I've heard a lot already in 2017, and a couple thoughts as to why advocates might want to lean on some different talking points.

"America's public schools are awful and failing." Umm. This is a problem on a bunch of counts. For one, choice advocates forcefully argue that parents can judge school quality. Well, as EdNext has found, 70% of parents routinely say the public schools in their community deserve an "A" or "B"; more to the point, Gallup reports that 76% of parents say they're satisfied with their child's school. So, most parents don't think their kids schools are failing. When you tell these families that their schools stink, as No Child Left Behind made clear, they don't rally to your cause and say, "Thank you for showing me a higher truth!" Instead, they tend to say, "You don't know what you're talking about." And they tend to experience the strident claims as an attack. It's certainly true that some parents are dissatisfied and may think their children's schools are failing, but it's worth noting that they constitute a distinct minority of all parents.

"American schools can't get any worse." If we're talking test scores like PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) or TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), the results suggest that our public schools are middling, with mediocre bang-for-the-buck. But they're far from the bottom of international rankings. NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) shows stagnant performance over the past 6 or 8 years, but scores are noticeably up from two decades ago. I'm the first to argue that our schools can do a whole lot better—for all of our students—but it's also indisputably true that things can certainly get substantially worse.

"School choice will help any family in every kind of community." Expanding educational options can help many students and families. But it's no cure-all, and it can certainly have downsides if systems of choice are not thoughtfully constructed. For rural families where the next-closest junior high is 30 or 40 miles away, choice doesn't make a lot of sense. Suggesting that a school should be subdivided or asserting that new schools will inevitably spring up tends to strike these families as unlikely, unhelpful, and far removed from addressing their actual concerns. When similar kinds of questions are raised about the impact on communities for which schools are key to the social fabric or that some families will struggle to negotiate the system, these bland assurances tend to sound like corporate PR.

Choice has a lot going for it. It's a powerful way to empower educators, families, and communities, while allowing them to sidestep entrenched and frequently obdurate bureaucracies. It makes it easier to reimagine schools in ways that make better use of today's talent and technology in order to meet the need of real students. It takes diversity seriously, recognizing that students are different and enabling families to find educational options that make sense for their children. But all of this tends to get lost when the case for choice is made in purple prose, with advocates suggesting that school choice is all upside and no downside. If that were true, choice would be the first policy in history for which it was. But it's not. And when choice advocates suggest otherwise, it only hurts their credibility and strengthens the hand of their most over-the-top opponents.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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