School Choice & Charters Opinion

Public choice under public scrutiny

By Deborah Meier — March 26, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

“We have no final answers. We keep negotiating.” I may put it on my bumper-sticker.

RDT expressed a similar concern to yours on our Blog: the risk of Balkanization that comes with choice. But that’s where we are now. Schools are more than ever segregated by race and class, and even religiosity and ethnicity. Largely by geography plus private and selective school choice. Even when parents send their kids to diverse schools, there is segregation within the schools. Kids today are largely educated only in the company of others like themselves.

Do I like this? No. I think diversity on the basis of class, race and schooling-smarts is enormously important. But how to get there? Step one: Choice should not be confused with vouchers or privatization. Step two: think public choice under public scrutiny.

The default position I hold is that decisions should be as close as possible to those who know the child and family and school best. I start there and then….. move up the ladder.

Who should do the scrutinizing? Each school constituency for starters, local taxpayers (especially if they are paying the bill), state judiciaries and legislatures and their delegated educational bodies, and finally Federal legislatures and the Federal judiciary.

What should be scrutinized? Should it include what is taught or not taught and how, school rules and provisioning, and who goes to school with whom?

Re content and pedagogy. I am less worried about whether they teach evolution than you are Diane. At present we teach Science so poorly that I suspect more graduates of our schools believe in astrology than astronomy. I’m for continuing to use the courts to defend the religion/state divide—sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Given the Supreme Court we have now…… But more mandates won’t solve it—about which we disagree whether we are talking about science or history. Actually, Diane, I fear there will be too much uniformity even without a single mandate or national test. As for pedagogical freedom, as the Blog responses we got on Reading First remind me, there will be those who in the name of Science or Morality will want to mandate the one-best-way. I hope we can derail the purveyors of final truths in the name of Proven Best Practice of all sorts by lowering the temptation that centralized power offers them.

Re rules and provisioning. I am concerned about racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, free speech…as they effect schooling decisions. These require constant surveillance—with or without choice. If schools were ever to become centers for practicing and studying democracy we might have less trouble over time with such issues. Until then (and after), I’m for public scrutiny. E.g. I’m for immediately passing a bill that ties federal aid to closing the funding gaps within each state.

Who should we go to school with? In many rural and suburban communities choice is not feasible and promoting diversity remains illusive. But where choice is feasible it can be used to promote integration. I regret that we cannot control for race, but we could ensure that the families are the choosers not the schools, and we could ensure that other forms of diversity are honored. It will be hard to convince powerful subgroups who like schools that are selective on the basis of testing or audition skill to let such advantages go. Meantime we can use every tool available to increase diversity through choice.

How will we hold folks accountable under such chaos and anarchy? Tune in later. It may be that acknowledging the “chaos” is the first step toward building democratic forms of accountability and that democracy starts with an uncomfortable reliance on human judgment.


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