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Parental Choice Downside

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But they also know that I've repeatedly warned about the downside.  The experience of parents trying to get their children into D.C. charter schools is further evidence that choice is not all it's cracked up to be ("What Applying to Charter Schools Showed Me About Inequality," The Atlantic, Mar. 25).

In D.C. and elsewhere, demand far exceeds openings in charter schools.  (I focus on charter schools because these days they exemplify parental choice.) As a result, parents are bound to be frustrated. Educational marketeers argue that this state of affairs will eventually disappear as new charter schools are created.  

But I question this assertion. Since 2007, enrollment in charter schools across the country has grown from 1.3 million to 2 million, an increase of 59 percent.  Waiting lists continue to grow as well, with 53,000 in New York City alone. How can enough new charter schools be opened to meet demand?  Opening new ones is not like opening a new branch office ("State Protections for Charter Schools Threaten de Blasio's Education Goals," The New York Times, Mar. 30).

For example, in New York City when not enough rent-free space can be found for charter schools in government buildings or when there is no room in public school buildings, the city is required to pay up to $40 million to rent private space. That amount won't go very far. Moreover, not all parents have the time and sophistication to investigate which charter schools are suitable for their children's needs and interests. 

The best evidence to refute the glowing claims about choice is surprisingly given little attention. In 1989, New Zealand embarked on the most dramatic and far-reaching transformation of a public school system by any industrialized country.  Under a program known as Tomorrow's Schools, parents were allowed to send their children to any school. Funding followed students once they were admitted. The trouble was that sophisticated parents of means quickly took advantage of the options open to them to fill up seats in the best schools.  With nowhere to go, other students were forced to return to their previous schools, which became far more polarized along racial and socioeconomic lines than before.

Realizing that its program was not working as educational marketeers had theorized, the government began slowly pulling back. The entire story is told in detail by Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd in When Schools Compete (Brookings Institution Press, 2000).  I don't think the results will be much different here, despite what reformers argue. Choice will primarily benefit students whose parents are deeply involved in their education and possess the wherewithal to navigate the waters. Are we willing as a society to accept that likelihood?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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