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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Is School Choice an End, a Means, or What?

By Rick Hess — April 10, 2017 1 min read
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I’ve always been struck that the most vociferous school choice supporters approach the whole issue as a passionate cause, while more equivocal choice advocates talk about reforms like charter schooling as one potential tool for “scaling system reform.” The most impassioned advocates embrace a simple charge: expand the amount of school choice. Meanwhile, the second camp argues that choice needs to be deployed carefully and with copious oversight.

Me? I’ve never been wholly comfortable with either camp. For me, school reform rests on a series of pretty simple tenets. I want reform to serve all of our children. I want reform to promote schooling that inspires students, builds character, creates citizens, and helps students master a rich body of knowledge and skills. I want reform to empower families and educators. I want reform to respect communities and their values. I want reform to bust up obdurate bureaucracies and strip away intrusive rules and regulations. I want reform to upend anachronistic arrangements and offer room to creative problem-solvers who are responsible for the quality of their handiwork.

Much of the time, school choice is a useful way to advance these goals. Choice systems make it easier for educators and other problem-solvers to launch new schools, offer autonomy, and enable parents to find schools that suit their children and respect their values. In all of this, choice is much more than a mere means with which to close achievement gaps or help scale “no excuses” charter schools. It’s an avenue that helps make it possible to reimagine the very shape of American education. This is why I’m generally a full-spectrum school choice supporter.

Of course, there’s no assurance that choice will always serve my aims. When advocates push for Washington to promote ambitious choice proposals or state legislatures to subject choice programs to heavy-handed new regulations, their agenda no longer complements mine. When advocates attack the values and decency of parents and voters who express concerns about the impact of choice proposals on their children and communities, or make the case for choice by dismissing public schools as a dumpster fire, their agenda has become entirely detached from mine.

Anyway, for those friends and readers who get frustrated when they think I’m being “contrary,” I hope this clarifies where I’m coming from.

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