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Katie Osgood: Choice or Equity -- You Can't Have Both

Guest post by Katie Osgood.

Note: This post is a followup to the discussions triggered by this post, The Education Reform Dichotomy, Big Choices Ahead.

'No Excuses' Reformers make the central claim that offering "choice" is a fundamental mechanism to closing the achievement gap. They say that students and families must be "saved" from their failing schools through "high-quality" options. They say that only when families have "choice" will we reach equal educational opportunity in our schools.

But what is the reality of "choice"?

"Choice" is the decision to give more to some and less to others. Outside the one-time smatterings of philanthropic donations, no new money is being pumped into school budgets. In fact, school budget belts are being tightened like never before. And what we see is school monies being redistributed into an even stronger pattern of the Matthew Effect: those who have more get more, those who have less get less. This pattern of inequality has been the status quo in American education since its inception. Low-income communities and communities of color have historically had to fight for a slice of the school funding pie.

That slice has not grown larger. "Choice" has simply brought a new dimension into the inequality. We see districts like Chicago make the decision to heavily favor charter schools while simultaneously underfunding and threatening to close down up to 120 neighborhood schools due to a "budget crisis". And then many of those charters, in order to claim miraculous success in a fierce competitive market, systemically exclude the neediest (and most expensive to educate) children including children coming from deep poverty, children with the most intense special needs, children who are English Language Learners, and children with significant behavior problems. Students who do not or will not fit the 'no excuses" model are sent back to the neighborhood schools, schools which are being grossly under-resourced. The very real and dangerous consequence of choice is a concentration of our neediest children in schools being purposefully starved of resources.

And are charters even "quality" choices for parents? Charters on the whole do not perform any better than neighborhood schools while some perform significantly worse. Many charters still see the exact same types of violence and disruptive behavior, poor graduation rates, and low academic achievement; they are just extremely careful in their marketing strategy to cover up this reality. And the much lauded "successful" charters game the system by serving a concentration of kids at the upper end of the free/reduced lunch spectrum and kids with fewer intense needs. Nothing has been changed or fixed. "No excuses" discipline only works as a sorting mechanism; it does not help change behavior. And even within the "successful" schools, we see overall quite mediocre classroom quality coupled with prison-like discipline conditions in extremely segregated settings for poor black and brown students. The teaching at charters is not miraculous, the teachers are not superstars, the curriculum is ordinary or worse, and art and music are often cut. "No excuses" charters do not attempt to create equity by giving low-income kids the same types of opportunities kids in the leafy suburbs receive. No one could ever confuse a KIPP or Noble St Charter School with the affluent New Trier High School. No, these charter school students are condemned to sub-par schools which favor cost-cutting techniques like over-reliance on technology in lieu of qualified staff, hiring inexperienced and uncertified teachers, and churning through teachers rapidly to keep labor costs in check.

The great irony of "choice" is that in their efforts to end the achievement gap, to assert that "poverty is not destiny," 'No Excuses' Reformers actually re-create the conditions of inequality and unequal distributions of resources anew. They never touch upon the root causes of poor achievement, namely poverty, but rather concentrate the kids that are less poor in certain charters and claim these schools have proven that "poverty doesn't matter". In reality, all they have proven is how very much poverty, and degrees of poverty matter. The poorer the child, the more likely they will struggle in school. And "choice" punishes children for living in deep poverty. The practice of "counseling out" disruptive and difficult-to-educate students is a hallmark of choice. The entire point of having options is that not every school will be a good fit for every student. And what we see is many charters refusing to serve the students suffering the worst effects of poverty: the kids who have learning and behavior problems often as a DIRECT RESULT of the extreme poverty they live in. These charters reinforce that poverty is in fact, destiny in our society.

"Choice" is the antithesis of equity. It throws up its hands in defeat claiming equity is an impossible utopian dream. And so "choice" becomes the greatest defender of the status quo of inequality.

I ask you, is the solution to the problem of struggling schools to throw away the poorest, sickest, and neediest of our children into the most under-resourced and overwhelmed buildings? Mayor Emanuel once allegedly told the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, that 25% of Chicago's kids are worthless and that he wasn't going to waste money on them. Another CPS official once said the district will not invest in any school which it may close in the near or distant future, even though children still attend those schools. Is this what "choice" is? Just one more way to segregate and divide us? Punish the sickest, the homeless, the poorest? Throw away the schools that are overwhelmed with the neediest kids instead of helping them? Make parents fight between themselves for the scraps of funding being sent to poorer neighborhoods, dividing communities?


Another Way

Or is it possible to fight for a system that leaves no children behind, which promotes equity and equal opportunity for ALL? Can we commit to spending the MOST resources on the neediest children to address safety and learning issues? Can we commit to addressing the underlying poverty which creates so many of the behavior, learning, and safety issues in schools? Can we commit to ensuring that no matter where you live, you will have a well-kept, EQUITABLY-resourced (more resources for needier schools), properly -staffed school, complete with access to libraries and librarians, up-to-date technology, social workers, counselors, and foreign language, arts, and music?
This vision of schooling is what the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike to create. It is indeed possible to achieve this seemingly utopian model of education. The CTU has discovered numerous ways to create the schools all children deserve. We can increase funding. We can fight to ensure the funding we currently have is directed towards the neediest children, NOT wasted on testing, data systems, complicated, flawed, and unnecessary new evaluation systems, and the agendas of the politically connected. We can fight poverty. We can call attention to the very real effects of poverty on our students' lives. But it will not happen without a struggle.

I've seen what "choice" does to kids.
These are MY students being thrown away. And I prefer a vision of education where equity and justice, not choice and inequality, are the norms.

What do you think? Is it possible to pursue equity through school choice? Or is school choice creating the antithesis of equity?

Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught special education in the Chicago Public Schools. She holds a Masters in Elementary and Special Education from DePaul University. Before teaching in America, she taught ESL/EFL for six years in Japan. Her blog is Miss Katie's Ramblings.

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