Education Opinion

Parental Choice Is Inevitable

By Walt Gardner — March 20, 2015 2 min read
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Although I received a solid public-school education from K-12 and taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve long supported parental choice. I believe that few things in life are as important as education and that parents have not only the right, but the duty, to send their children to any school they believe best meets their needs and interests. Yet I hasten to point out that comparing public schools and private schools is inherently unfair (“Why I’m a Public-School Teacher but a Private-School Parent,” The Atlantic, Mar. 4).

Private schools operate by a completely different set of rules. They can admit and expel as they see fit. All it takes is one misbehaving student in a class to make a teacher’s life a nightmare. The paperwork involved in suspending a public-school student takes time and energy away from instructing the students who want to learn. And teachers are then required to provide suspended students with the work they missed. Expulsion is almost impossible unless the student commits the most egregious of all acts.

Private schools also benefit from parental buy-in. When parents make a concerted effort to apply for admission, they signal that they are involved in their children’s education. In contrast, public schools are attended largely on the basis of geography. (The exceptions are magnet schools and exam schools.) As a result, too many students are mainly there because the law says they have to.

I don’t believe that private-school teachers are any more effective than their public-school colleagues. Whatever positive differences exist in private schools are the result of parental involvement and socioeconomic factors (“How ‘social air bags’ for rich kids exacerbate unequal opportunity,” Los Angeles Times, Mar.18). If this were not true, then the best private-school teachers would be able to post the same impressive results when transferred to an inner-city public school. But they haven’t been able to.

K-12 education is a right. But with every right comes responsibilities. Unfortunately, the latter is given short shrift. It’s not surprising, therefore, that disengagement is so widespread in public schools. In private schools, the atmosphere is different. I’m not saying that all students in private schools are scholars. Far from it. But they know that many of their parents have made great sacrifices to send them there. If nothing else, the pressure motivates them.

The growing popularity of charter schools is evidence that parents want a choice. Although charter schools’ performance is decidely mixed, parents don’t seem to care. For example, in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, there was a wait list of 49,700 last spring for admission to charter schools. Contrary to widespread belief, the demand is greatest within low-income black and Hispanic families.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this last factor. How can we tell these parents to be patient when they have already endured years of substandard education for their children? The reality is that parents from different socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds are increasingly demanding choice. I maintain that it’s futile to resist. Parents are going to fight for what they believe is best for their children regardless of the arguments made. I can’t blame them one bit.

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.