School Choice & Charters Opinion

My Love-Hate Relationship With Choice

By Deborah Meier — January 13, 2015 6 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Joe Nathan today.

Dear Joe,

Hurrah. We’re in half agreement. We’re both infuriated with what’s happening to the charter idea. But while you are also exhilarated, I am not—to say the least.

You might take a look at my website essay, “Mom and Apple Pie” for a shorter semi-tongue-in-cheek response describing briefly my fury and my fear. *

A word about the five myths you list, which I hope we explore one by one over the coming weeks as we gather some “facts” that may help us see where we disagree over the facts vs. our interpretation of them.

1.) Choice. Balancing individual self-interest and the common good is not easy. All else being equal, I vote for choice. But all else is not equal. Some view the common good as the sum of all the self-interested individual choices citizens make—the marketplace. I don’t. Do you?

2.) Are they public? It depends on how we define public. Remember traditional private schools also are accountable to the public.

3.) Segregation. Yes, many African-Americans gave up on integration and settled for making the best of schools that were racially segregated. We need to confront this. The current Supreme Court may beat us to it by essentially annulling Brown.

4.) Equity. Charters are more segregated than the schools they replace, and they find ways of removing or not “appealing” to the children with the most severe disadvantages.

5.) Innovation? I’m not talking about charter incompetence. Their most famous innovation (“no excuses” et al) is based on an age-old ideology, carried out in a more consistent and sophisticated manner. And, no, the Coalition of Essential schools, CORE Knowledge, and Montessori are networks that share ideas. They are not controlled by the sponsors of their ideas. And as you know, judging schools by their “success” is at best not easy, and, at worst, relatively easy to manipulate. Surely 2008’s economic crisis should make us wary of “data.”

Now, let me see if I can do a better job describing where I’ve come from so we can better see where and when we diverged.

A fine idea can be turned into its opposite depending on the power relationships within which it is implemented.

Ray Cortines once “accused” me of being an innocent for ignoring this. Maybe. For a time people like Lamar Alexander had convinced me that our agendas were compatible. In the new information age, he argued, business also needs the kind of skeptical, assertive, collaborative employees that schools like yours produce. He probably was sincere. I think you still hold on to that hope. I don’t.

We were both attracted to smallness, choice, and self-governance for a purpose. If we wanted to honestly answer “yes” to George Counts’ challenge in his 1932 publication “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?,” we needed schools that took democracy seriously. We agreed that being well-educated for democracy is not necessarily synonymous with being well-educated for becoming rich or being a compliant citizen or employee. The tradition of American schooling never took this dilemma seriously, or openly.

For schools to have an impact on the health (and wealth) of a democracy, students, teachers, families, and their communities need to attend to scale (smallness), choice, and self-governance. These three might be essential—if not enough. Yes, pedagogy and curriculum also matter.

Actually even that threesome—above all, choice—came to me slowly, and turned out to have vulnerabilities! Choice had, of course, an ugly history. Besides, I was initially exceedingly skeptical given the rampant racism, poverty, and inequities my students faced whether Counts was even right. But lessening the negative impact that schools as we know/knew them had on the dignity and self-respect of poor and working-class kids and their families seemed worth trying, even if this would not produce miracles. The role of choice, however, was sheer happenstance. The superintendent of District 4 offered us the chance to do our thing, within a system of choice. We said yes. And I liked the result.

What was our hope when we opened Central Park East in Harlem? Citizens who had the habits and the knowledge needed to be comfortable questioning, doubting, and taking action. Such citizens are better prepared to protect the common good and, simultaneously, better able to identify their individual self-interests. But such habits are not “natural"; they take deliberate practice. Where better to practice them than in the safety of schools? (Big leap here.)

School teachers and parents could hardly pass on democratic habits to a new generation if they had never themselves experienced the complexity of democracy in practice—its compromising (in the best sense) character, and the intellectual and social empathy it rests upon. Democracy’s intellectual and social excitement are hard to convey by lecture or textbook. Maybe, we agreed, creating schools that tried to live by democratic habits was the best we could do.

Step One: Eliminate practices that made teacher compliance the golden rule (which the best and worst sabotaged behind closed doors). The two powerful undemocratic habits that teachers and students usually practice in school are secrecy and compliance.

Step Two: Maybe if teachers had time to know each other, their students, and families personally, they’d grow to trust each other as partners.

Step Three: Maybe families, students, and faculty could figure out how to both be friends and critics if they shared real power over the common good. Of course, then they’d also have to confront the fact that, indeed, sometimes there are differences in our self-interests, which we spend a lot of energy disguising in school.

Maybe we could do this not just in rich, progressive schools, but in schools in which most of the children were poor and from racial or language minorities. Of course, it was easier to do if no family was forced to attend the school, but rather chose/agreed to participate. Thus was Central Park East was founded 40 years ago. It’s still there—"holding on"—along with several dozen sister schools which followed its path. (How seriously it would be compromised without choice is still an open question.)

Years later, Walter Annenberg gave New York City a grant to try our ideas out with 100 schools and 50,000 students. It got vetoed by a new chancellor. We have since trimmed our sails. But we haven’t lost the dream.

Could it have been otherwise if ...? Actually, Ted Sizer wanted, at first, to support just 15 existing high schools of different sorts. He wanted to test his nine essential principles out on a small scale. Foundations persuaded him to go big. Within a few years around 1,500 schools joined the coalition—some seriously, some perhaps less so. With patience, might his dream have succeeded?

As the new corporately sponsored reform train came down the track, starting in the mid-'80s and picking up steam in the ‘90s, we watched nervously. It seemed at first to have adopted much of our language. It took a while to see that, at its heart, it called for more standardized high-stakes testing, standardized standards, and reliance on marketplace vs. democratic discipline. We became uncomfortable. Yes, changing boards and superintendents were a “nuisance,” but we survived them. What we didn’t survived was NCLB, Race to the Top, etc., and the proliferation of external experts designing our lives.

Yes, democracy is messy. I like that fact. Some friends still insist that you need a dictatorship to get to true democracy. I disagree. I think the best preparation for democracy is “more of it.” I suspect you do, too.

If so, how are the current package of reforms, which involve replacing the current inadequate public “system” with more privately governed ones, an answer? How are the rules being proposed designed to maximize the democratic spirit in school? Choice is too often “if you don’t like it, leave.”

The way charters are headed, Joe, seems to me to give us the worst of both the public and private systems, not the best of both. There is an alternative: More democracy, and not confusing democracy with the marketplace.


P.S. It would be very useful if we can find some facts that we both accept. Which of those “myths” rests on different factual claims vs. different interpretations?

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.