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Are School Choice and Equity Incompatible?

Last week was National School Choice Week, an annual nationwide publicity effort sponsored by a coalition of organizations, mostly charter school and education reform groups. The choices they're celebrating include not only charters, but also magnet schools, independent schools, and home schooling. While their website doesn't, at a glance, reveal any particular stance on vouchers, their coalition partners include supporters of vouchers and tax credits. Those approaches to school choice are even more problematic, but for now, I'll focus on charter schools.

It's hard to argue against the idea of choice. Everyone wants choices, and as school choice advocates point out, the current situation is that people with greater wealth and moblility have choices that others do not. In my childhood, I benefitted from attending a magnet school and a private school. (I also attended two Department of Defense schools and one traditional public elementary school). Like my parents did with my schooling, my wife and I exercised some choice in my children's education: we entered our older son in a lottery to enter a bilingual immersion program in our district (he didn't get a spot), and we now have both sons enrolled in a choice program within our neighborhood public middle school.

So I understand the desire for choices, and I am not constructing an argument against the concept. In practice, however, I can't get behind the charter school movement as a whole, primarily because so much of it depends on competition for inadequate resources. There's a resentment I've heard in multiple settings as I've traveled to schools around California this year. Dedicated and talented educators doing their best in challenging circumstances often feel charter schools are opportunistically undercutting the established schools and districts. I don't mean to impugn the motives of charter school teachers who work in those schools, but on balance, I worry that the competitive nature of charter school politics is more harmful than helpful.

Public education is an institution that demands equity rather than the creation of winners and losers, but the charter movement pits schools against each other. The net effect of charters on student learning nationwide is ambiguous at best, but the increase in segregation is relatively clear

I am not out to condemn charter schools en masse; there are so many types and models that generalizations are unwise. Many of them are wonderful places for students and teachers. Some are barely different than they were before charter conversions that were carried out for fiscal or procedural benefits. Others have been founded by teachers, sponsored directly by districts, or designed as educational laboratories through university-district partnerships. These are small-scale efforts that keep resources and funding in local control. There's no issue of profits driving decisions, no marketing and development departments to employ, no means to help real estate portfolios. These are not the types of charter outfits that end up being investigated by the FBI. It's not that traditional public schools and districts are immune to such problems, but rather that the public (through regulations and elections) retains more ability scrutinize and regulate public schools compared to charter management organizations (CMOs). 

Some readers may be saying, "But charter schools are public schools!" According to the National Labor Relations Board, ruling in a case from Chicago, charter school operators should be treated in labor relations as "private entities acting as contractors for the government." Charter schools use public money to serve some of the public, but their governance and operations are sufficiently independent from government that they should be considered "private entities."

They certainly act like private entities. They focus on what's good for their own organization and their students - as would seem appropriate - but then, the possibility of diminished resources for other schools in a district becomes worse than an afterthought; it becomes a competitive advantage. A struggling public education system is fertile ground for charter school growth.

Our public education system has a mandate to provide a quality education to every child. In a modern comprehensive system, that means students of diverse ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, at all skill levels, with all kinds of interests. It means students coping with special educational needs of varied origins and durations. It means rural and urban communities. It includes all of the challenges that follow from poverty, housing instability, or homelessness. Students in foster care. In the judicial system or correctional facilities.

There's transportation costs to get students to and from school. There's equipment for science labs, computer labs. Athletic programs (including equipment, uniforms, and coaches), orchestras and instruments, field trips... I could go on quite a while listing all the items a comprehensive school or district might reasonably be expected to try to pay for. Hard decisions must be made, and some areas will inevitably be stronger than others. 

The overall mandate doesn't change even as the budget fluctuates, and legislators keep shifting the policy landscape, often adding unfunded requirements that demand resources and steal focus. Given the growing poverty in the country, public school systems face continually increasing struggles, and the people in government who should be held accountable for failing to support schools are instead paving the way for competition that may weaken them further. 

CMOs - some of them aiming to turn a profit - know that there are unhappy students and parents in the system, and look for opportunities to expand. Even if charters have less money overall (which may or may not be the case), charters can capitalize on their newness and flexibility; they can create a niche, select a focus, and then compete for students (or parents) to whom their model appeals. The comprehensive public school or district is not equipped to respond, nor is there a societal consensus that would allow them to veer from their responsibility to serve all students if necessary to compete with charters.

Freedom from serving all students is a competitive edge for charters, for example, helping some charter high schools produce impressive matriculation and college attendance statistics. Additionally, the explicit expectation or (illegal) requirement of parental involvement in the school may help ensure a certain type of student and family form a higher percentage of the student body. A certain linguistic or cultural focus may further boost interest in a charter, and choice in locations may also be advantageous. A higher expulsion rate can provide an advantage in school climate. If students leave charter schools mid-year, the funding stays with the charters while the student with a disrupted educational experience returns to the traditional schools. Charters can choose to leave "open seats" rather than enroll new students as openings are created in later grades, shielding charters that engage in this practice from challenges their traditional counterparts are obligated to take on. 

In our society, competition is widely accepted, a cultural norm. Competition is supposed to bring out best efforts and assure that only the meritorious prosper. In practice, the competition between public schools and private entities with different mandates and different resources is not serving us well. We need to view education as an essential public institution too important to allow the collateral damage in schools that "lose" the competition.


And yet, recognizing the value of options and choice, and in order to spur innovation, I would like to see more flexibility and creativity in schools overall. Can we have both equity and choice? I think the best path forward is to adapt the public school system to offer more choices under a unified system that ensures equity, with the added goal of reserving public resources to serve the public good. We should promote the expansion of various secondary education pathways and specialties, academies, or schools-within-schools. Allow more intra- and inter-district flexibility for students and staff, using technology and blended learning if that helps. Consider other innovative models that expand options and promote change, without segregating or excluding students, and without draining resources from the overall system. One school I visited this year, New Technology High School in Napa, CA, seen above, is a choice school created by a district and open to all students. (The New Tech Network supports districts or schools, both traditional and charter). It might also be worth considering breaking up large or dysfunctional districts that have been less responsive to community concerns and less effective at meeting the needs of students and schools. That idea has circulated in Los Angeles Unified for decades.

Charter schools might remain a small part of the system as well, but with tighter oversight, non-exclusionary policies, and some means of favoring non-profit operators with local ties or community partners.

Ideally, a robust public education system should be a cornerstone of a democratic and equitable society. Having a quasi-private system siphoning off public resources, playing by different rules with less oversight, does not advance that ideal. 

Photo by David B. Cohen
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