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What Does It Mean to Have 'More School Choice'? Part II

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In the last post, I wrote about how parents' perceptions of choice might be influenced by the options available to them and, how, even in a place like New Orleans where there seems to be ample choice, parents sometimes don't feel that way. Here, I talk about a related issue--choice within schools versus between them.

Taking a step back from school choice for a moment, it's important to recognize that one of the major (though somewhat brief) movements of the past 15 years has been small high schools. The appealing logic behind this approach is that large industrial-sized high schools are not very cohesive and do too many things, but none very well. There is now some good evidence, however, that this approach can work, even as many districts abandon the idea. 

The reason I bring this up in a post about school choice is that charter schools also tend to be small and specialized. This is certainly true in New Orleans. As I mentioned in the last post, there are language immersion schools, "No Excuses" schools, traditional schools, and so on. This seems to be what school reformers mean when they say there is "more choice." But it is important to be specific--they are talking about choice between schools.

What about choice within schools? Traditional large comprehensive high schools (a few of which still exist in New Orleans) offer students an array of options to choose from. Though all comprehensive high schools basically look the same, this is only true in the sense that they offer the same menu of options, but the word "menu" itself highlights that students do have choices.

The distinction between choice within schools and across them is important in part because it's painful and costly to switch schools. Suppose my daughter decides one year that she wants more math and science--what children want and need changes over time as any parent or teacher knows. But what if she's in an arts-focused school? In that case, getting what she wants would require her to upend her friendships and acclimate to a new schooling environment--and even then she might not get into the school she wants. In a comprehensive high school, she could just go to the guidance counselor and change her schedule. Which of these involves "more choice"?

Since we are in the gastronomic paradise of New Orleans, a restaurant analogy is appropriate. It is often said that large comprehensive high schools are like cafeterias where students come in with their tray and take a bit of this and that, as they prefer. The quality is not great but people get the kind of food they want. In contrast, specialized restaurants are known for narrower, higher-quality offerings. Of course, the fact that they are "known for" doesn't always make it true. It's not clear to me if quality is consistently lower in comprehensive high schools, especially since they can take advantage of economies of scale. But it is a common argument.

Also, as the New Orleans case shows, charter schools can also be comprehensive in the way that traditional public schools are. Charter schools need not specialize and many in New Orleans do not, instead operating more like comprehensive traditional public schools.

So, here is another reason why parents and students sometimes perceive choice differently than policymakers do. The ability to choose within schools may be at least as important as the ability to choose between them.

 

Douglas Harris will be participating in an NPR panel on the state of education in New Orleans tonight at 7 p.m. (Central). You can tune into a live broadcast of the discussion here

 

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