School Choice: Do You Believe? (Thursday’s Belated Very Tiny Reading Collection)

This week is National School Choice Week.  The homepage for this event declares that this celebratory seven days is, “Shining a spotlight on effective education options for every child.”

Portland has its own brand of school choice, resulting in lotteries for parents desperate to leave the failing school in their neighborhood or perhaps just looking for a school that is more innovative, smaller, or more creative than their closest school. The NCLB sanctions to schools that do not meet AYP for a certain number of years in a row also allow for bussing children from their struggling school to one that is evaluated as stronger in student achievement in elementary and middle schools…although the policy has changed for high schools, I believe.

School choice presents a problem, especially for those of us who are parents living in neighborhoods where the schools do not have the best achievement results.  It is wonderful that I can possibly win a lottery slot for my daughter to go into an immersion program, but I personally am torn between supporting and trying to lift up my neighborhood school and potentially putting my children in a program that will be more intellectually stimulating.

Even while torn, I do not believe that school choice is a long-term answer for the inequities in our schools.  While some tote school choice as the answer and believe that competition will end in better schools for all, what I know from observation and experience is that many children will get left behind.  And I fundamentally believe that all neighborhood schools should provide creative, stimulating, strong learning environments for local kids.  School choice often depletes neighborhood schools, leaving them more underfunded and without the resources of additional parents who can be involved in school support.  To read more about this problem, please check out Maureen Costello’s blog post in the Huffington Post.  The title of her post alone should inspire you to read more on this issue: “School Choice: It’s Not for Everyone, and That’s the Problem.”

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2 thoughts on “School Choice: Do You Believe? (Thursday’s Belated Very Tiny Reading Collection)

  1. There is the expression, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Yet as a future educator who is socially conscious (or at least, I’m working on it,) and also as a parent I, at times, find myself in conflict with myself. Head or heart?, and they’re both intertwined.
    I have read both the McIntosh essay and Kozol’s Shame of the Nation in the past, and revisiting them raised no fewer questions, and evoked no less sense of guilt. Kozol writes of “apartheid schooling” – of the segregation that is occurring within our public school system that perpetuates segregation and unequal access to resources in our society as a whole. Part of what Kozol writes about is white families pulling their children out of predominantly “minority” schools, which causes even more disparity and further segregation. From a social justice standpoint, I can shake my finger and say, “that’s just wrong.” How will we ever become a more equitable society, with equally high-achieving schools, if those who are able (have the means) choose to flee floundering programs? We must work to change the system, and it is exactly the families who are fleeing who have the resources – time, money, etc – to help narrow the achievement gap. Most “failing” schools (“failing” under the definition of NCLB) are high-poverty, and usually high percentage minority schools. If there were more equal distribution of student demographics vis a vie minimizing “white flight” and retaining families of greater economic means and/or higher-achieving students, surely we could change the tide of these “failing” schools?
    However, as a parent, I feel my primary responsibility is to my children and in providing them with the best opportunities I can manage to ensure a greater chance at success (however they define it) in life. As such, part of my job is to provide them with the best educational opportunities possible. So, I am one of those parents who pulled my child out of a high-poverty, primarily minority-population “failing school,” and used my knowledge of NCLB rights and my advocacy skills to secure a spot for my son in a high school that I felt would be “better suited” to meet his needs. While I did not push to get him into what some would consider to be the best high school in Portland Public Schools, I did push to get him out of Jefferson, which is our neighborhood school. I have myriad reasons I used to rationalize my decision, but the bottom line was that Jefferson did not have the classes or graduation statistics I needed to feel comfortable sending my son there.
    I know it is part of my white privilege to even have the means to exercise the option of sending my child to another school. The fact that I have the resources and (English as my first) language ability to be media savvy and to know what is going on in the PPS system and where its weaknesses are at present; the fact that I had the access to an education which enabled me to present an eloquent case when petitioning for my son’s transfer; the fact that I have the means (or that I have the ability to make it a priority) to get my child to a school on the other side of town from where we live – all these things I am acutely aware others may not have the same luxury of access to. I am aware of that, and I do not take for granted that I do have privilege in this way.
    I also know that I am “part of the problem.” And my fellow (childless) classmates in a former class did not fail to point out the obvious to me when I did a presentation on PPS high school system redesign, pointing out the current inequities in the system across the district and the fact that not all high school students in PPS have access to an equally rigorous education and that I was not planning to send my children to Jefferson, our “neighborhood” school when the time came. I am aware that the money follows the student, and that the fact that Jefferson bleeds students – that most people who have the means to pull their children from the school choose to do so – means less resources in terms of less money for FTE and therefore fewer course offerings, and fewer students and less course offerings means few (or no, as was the case a few years ago) AP or advanced classes, which means the higher-achieving students will choose to not attend Jefferson, and it becomes a self-perpetuating, downward spiral.
    I know this, and from a social justice standpoint, I am outraged that “we” don’t do something to fix the system. But as a parent with her children’s best interests at heart (as I see them,) I need to put those feelings aside and do what I think is right for my children right now, because I only have one chance to get it right with them. So, I’m left with no small sense of guilt about my feelings of entitlement, but am unwilling to risk “sacrificing” my children to make a point. However, if we all (and in this sense I mean white-privileged) continue to think this way, how will we ever be able to come to the table and work to bridge the gap that represents the inequities that exist in our educational system?

    • Liz: Your quandary is my quandary! You wrote, “Head or heart?, and they’re both intertwined.” This fits right in with the Valentine’s Day Challenge I’ve proposed to my readers and students! But the head vs. the heart is the core of the conflict for me as well now that I have my own children. Yes, I want to support my neighborhood schools (Roosevelt is right down the street from my house) but hesitate to send my already extremely verbal and well-prepared (with four teachers in the family) daughter to the school in my neighborhood. She may only be two, but parents these days have to start thinking about education early, and I was recently told that I was already behind in getting little Vera onto preschool waiting lists. I don’t know how to solve this problem. The only thing I’ve come up with so far is to work for the schools in my neighborhood (to advocate for them, to volunteer in them, to speak up for them) even if Vera ends up going elsewhere. This doesn’t solve the problem, though, and it doesn’t leave us (her parents) without blame or guilt. I wish I had an answer here…my only hope is that advocating and working for the schools might actually make my local high school strong enough of an option in 12 years. That should be enough time, right? 🙂

      Thanks so much for commenting. I hope you’ll add more of your thoughts to the mix as this blog gains momentum!

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