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The school choice mirage

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With the changes that have taken place in Philadelphia’s schools in recent years, the city could be a poster child for the concept of school choice.

We have public schools run by private companies, nonprofit community groups, and universities. There are magnet schools and public school transfer options, and most students apply to high schools outside of their neighborhoods. Philadelphia also has an extensive network of private schools, including one of the country’s largest Catholic school systems, and few cities have more charter schools.

But despite all these choices, we still have a school crisis. Now most of the city’s public and charter schools have ended up on the "No Child Left Behind Act" lists of schools that "need improvement" and must offer school choice. We believe many of the nonpublic schools would be on these lists too if they published their student performance data.

Some say the problem is that we haven’t taken school choice far enough.

President Bush and the conservative movement have presented a simplistic yet powerful argument for expanding "school choice." He says the problem is that for generations the urban poor have been trapped in failing public schools, and that we cannot wait for failing school systems to fix themselves.

So, this argument goes, it’s time to give the poor a way out of low-performing "government" schools and provide them with alternatives like charter schools, home schooling, or vouchers to pay for private schools. Give families a way out of the public schools, and the schools will be forced to either improve or close down, he argues.

It’s hard to resist this argument for personal freedom and individual opportunity. Wouldn’t life be easier if each family was encouraged to simply get what is best for their child, and it ended up that we all got what was best for all of us?

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way – our individual choices affect one another. And education is not just another consumer good like a candy bar or car that we can purchase off an assembly line.

If your child gets into the prestigious magnet school, then mine may not. If most of us choose a school that is not racially integrated or that does not serve students with disabilities, then eventually there may not be schools that meet those needs.

If we just pursue our individual wants as consumers and nobody addresses these issues of educational equity, the inequities between us will continue to grow more entrenched. The school choice "solution" reflects no understanding of the deep structural problems – racial and economic discrimination, poverty, and persistent residential segregation, to name a few-which have given birth to the vast inequalities that exist in the American public education system.

Students are "trapped" in struggling public schools because our society has never had the will to address these issues facing millions of children.

As residents of Pennsylvania, we spend three times as much to educate children who live in the most privileged communities as we do on the children from our poorest communities. This is backward – just like when the rich get the biggest tax cuts.

Yet the public schools in affluent districts are never offered as a "choice" for Philadelphia families.

A focus on school choice diverts us from addressing these deep race and class inequities and committing to provide the resources and attention that all our young people deserve.

Vouchers in all their forms exacerbate the problem. Education tax dollars will be drained off into the private sector, into schools that will never serve the vast majority of students in need.

The onus of blame is all that will change if President Bush gets his way on school choice. If you get a voucher and your child still isn’t getting a good education, now the responsibility falls squarely on you. If you don’t find a good school, you are just a poor consumer who is to blame for any educational deficiencies. School choice gives the government an "out" – a way to pass the buck on its responsibility for fixing neglected schools.

We agree with school choice advocates that all families deserve to have good choices in selecting a school, and this is not a reality for Philadelphia’s families.

But there simply won’t be meaningful choices on a wide scale unless we recommit ourselves to improving the most neglected public schools and find a more humane, community-oriented vision of school choice within the public school system.

It is crucial that every family be offered support in making their choices. Meaningful information needs to be available about what resources students are getting and how students from each school fare overall – not just how they perform on standardized tests.

Ideally, by giving every student a choice within a system that actively tries to reduce inequities between students and between schools, the process can be a win-win proposition for students.

As the Vallas administration works on providing more good choices for Philadelphia families, let’s hope that this community-oriented vision of school choice prevails.

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