Education Opinion

How Choice Cheats Some Children

By Walt Gardner — December 27, 2010 2 min read
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Readers of this column know by now that I strongly support parental choice of schools. But like most policies, the devil is in the details. At issue is whether it is possible to devise a system that promotes both choice and fairness.

This point is either overlooked or downplayed by reformers, who maintain that if parents were treated as consumers their children would be assured of a quality education. They base their argument on the business model. But unlike the free marketplace, public schools are also concerned with equity. As a result, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at how parental choice actually works in urban school districts across the country.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, serves as a case in point. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Dec. 26, the process of choosing a school is anything but straightforward (“Who can attend L.A. Unified’s arts high school?”). Parents who apply to a magnet school are allowed to enroll their children based on their ethnicity and a complicated point system. Those who choose a charter school must take part in a lottery. Other schools waive the rules for gifted students or athletes who don’t live in the neighborhood.

Things aren’t much better in the San Francisco Unified School District. The system is “wildly confusing,” according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Parents struggle for choices in S.F. schools,” Aug. 19). That’s because the district considers diversity, family income, and whether the child attended preschool.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest district with nearly 1,700 schools, boasts that it offers more choices than any other public school system in the country. But that doesn’t mean admission is guaranteed by any means. The Department of Education uses a lottery to distribute seats in coveted schools, which tend to be oversubscribed, although preferences are given to students with siblings already at the school. As a result, waiting lists are long and anxiety is high. The policy has angered parents who made the reputation of the neighborhood school a major factor in their decision of where to live. They feel betrayed by a policy that defies common sense.

Reformers advocating a business model also gloss over the difficulty of attempting to open new schools where demand exceeds supply. Economies of scale do not apply to education. It’s expensive to open a new school no matter how often the process is repeated. This is particularly the case in upscale neighborhoods, where the cost of real estate alone is prohibitive.

All of these factors call into question the claim that parental choice is a panacea. But imagine how especially confusing the process is for parents who lack the sophistication to work the system. They are totally at sea. That’s why educators have long supported improving all neighborhood schools. Only in that way can parents from diverse backgrounds reasonably assume that their children will have an opportunity to receive a quality education.

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.