Education Opinion

What Role Does School Choice Have in a Democracy?

By Deborah Meier — April 07, 2015 5 min read
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Deborah writes:

“Is choice, like free speech, at the heart of our definition of democracy?”

Yes, in terms of voting for whomever you wish. No, in terms of whether you can stop paying taxes or drive on the right side of the road. Sometimes it makes no “common” sense. Other times choice interferes with another powerful value--like diversity or community.

Joe Nathan responds: Yes, having freedom and choices within some limits is one of the central American liberties, not just in voting. Freedom and choice are embedded in employment, religion, housing, and a vast array of areas.

We’re not having a debate about whether wealthy Americans will be able to choose their schools. They can move to exclusive suburbs with elite schools where the price of admission is the ability to purchase an expensive home and pay the taxes.

Many of the arguments being made against charters are similar or identical to those made 40 years ago about choice within traditional districts.

Deb Meier: Democracy presupposes communities. When the “common school” was invented we had communities (although neither women nor people of color were considered citizens of them). Today we don’t--although women, Blacks, et al. are now citizens. Public policy must help restore diverse community and its institutions.

Schooling needs to be seen as a social good, not a private commodity, and parents as citizens not consumers. Social policy helped create exclusive suburbs, and it can help us create diverse communities.

Many of the arguments 40 years ago were right. Reminder: Small, self-governing schools of choice are still not popular among many charter authorizers or districts.

Joe Nathan: We agree that “self-governing schools of choice are still not popular” ... people have been trying for decades to get districts to do this. But how many districts have done so?

Meanwhile, according to the National Alliance of Public Charters, the majority of charters are independent, not part of a larger group. That doesn’t mean I oppose a group of charters working together. They should be judged the same way as other charters - on results with students and adherence to state and federal laws.

“Chartering” seems to be a part of public education where there are more opportunities for urban, rural, and suburban parents and educators to create new options, open to all.

As to your support for “old arguments” - one of the old arguments was that what was needed was more support for neighborhood schools, not creation of options. But as you have noted, what happens if some teachers want to create a Montessori, or Core Knowledge, or a Spanish, French or Chinese Immersion school, or a K-12 or a high school and some parents want that?

How do you do all that in one school? Of course, you can’t.

Deb Meier: Wow--if self-governing independents are more than half (hard to believe) then it’s about time you organized to present a different face to the world about chartering!!!! The media doesn’t mention anything but the Eva Moskowitz and ALEC types with their “free market place” privatization agenda. We/you have to change this! Our concerns for schools whose pedagogy, discipline and curriculum are aligned with democracy are getting beaten up meanwhile.

I’m still of mixed feelings about “choice” vs. neighborhood schools that engage in some kind of messy compromise. The political organizer in me wants neighborhood schools. The teacher in me wants to work among like-minded colleagues and volunteer families.

So I end up being (1) for maintaining neighborhood schools while we fight for integrated neighborhoods, (2) for families right to exercise choice in the interest of increased integration, and (3) for the neighborhood schools deciding whether they want to break up into smaller, self-governing units, while maintaining strong neighborhood solidarity (Social services, teams and clubs, libraries?) and (4) a limited number of self-governing “charters” that explore truly “experimental” approaches.

Joe Nathan: Deb, we agree that neighborhood schools ought to have the power to evolve into smaller, self-governing units. Why do you suppose that has not happened, when it could have?

Is part of the reason because school boards have not empowered school-level teachers and parents the way chartering does? School boards have that option. Why do you think they haven’t?

You wrote, “The media doesn’t mention anything but the Eva Moskowitz’ and ALEC types with their ‘free market place’ privatization agenda.” Actually, every week there are newspaper stories from all over the country that not only mention but also focus on independent charters.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned what should and shouldn’t be allowed. Briefly, schools should be required to be non-sectarian, use buildings that meet healthy and safety codes, follow federal civil rights laws, be open to all, take the same assessments as other public schools in the state; but they should also have the power to employ who they want, set salary and other working conditions at the school level, allow their educators to create a union and/or join a statewide union, and use various assessments that they and either the school board or other authorizer agree to.

Deb Meier: We both suffer a bit from localities. Where do you read stories about the local mom & pops? The media and legislators hear daily from the millionaire ALEC forces. They spend millions and millions lobbying, lunching with the rich and powerful. And their agenda and ours rarely overlap.

Actually, with little going for us I’m amazed at how much influence we had in a very short ten-year period--early 80s to early 90s. We changed the conversation. Alas, it soon became harder and harder for our language to mean just what it was intended to mean!!

Yes, humans are naturally conservative--they like traditions, they like stability. That’s why gradualism, conversion by example and persuasion works best for democratic change. Yes, school boards answer (where they still exist) to local alums who have nostalgia for the “old school”. Teachers, too, are trained largely by their experience from K-12. So are parents. That’s why we need the kinds of charters we had in mind originally--schools that give their parents and faculty the power to design their own changes.

We need a big tent, with resources and time to tinker and revise and encourage each other--and get the message out. And we need enough stability to make mistakes together--without being focused on what “they” will do if we “don’t” do x or y.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.