I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reformy "Choice" Isn't REAL Choice

One more clip from Education Nation, this time featuring our old friend Derrell Bradford:


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Gosh, I didn't realize that the difference between rich parents and poor parents was the "sophistication of their conversation about school choice." I thought the difference was the amount of money each had...

One of the primary selling points of reformy "choice" - and this is a point Bradford pushes quite often - is that vouchers and charters are offering the same "choice" to poor parents that affluent parents now enjoy. See, if we offer the working poor in the inner cities "choices," they'll engage in the same market behaviors that the upper middle-class does when it comes to their own children's education.

It's a very slick argument, but it's premised on a false sense of how exurban parents "choose" their children's education. The truth is that affluent parents make their school choices when they decide where to live

Real estate agents in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas carry around books with school profiles: SAT scores, college admissions rates, proficiency rates on state tests, etc. These are supplemented by the many websites now available to prospective home buyers which detail the successes or failures of various school districts. Local and national magazines regularly rank the "best" high schools (often using questionable methodology).

Armed with this information, affluent parents make a series of choices: how much can they afford to pay to move into an elite school district, and how much are they willing to shell out for the privilege? Charters have nothing to do with it, as those schools rarely exist in the exurbs. In fact, the uproar against charters in places like Highland Park and Princeton and Millburn is directly related to the notion that parents moved into those towns explicitly for the public schools; they are furious that anyone would try to diminish those schools' quality after they had already made their "choice."

These districts also feel very little pressure from private schools. The only privates that can compare to these districts are the highly selective and elite ones: Sidwell Friends, Lawrenceville, Lakeside, and so on. While these schools offer limited scholarships, they really serve the 1%; even then, many parents who could afford to send their children to these schools see no need when they can get their children into the best suburban publics. 

So the "choices" that suburban parents make have nothing to do with the reformy stuff Bradford pushes, like vouchers and charters. The real choice for proto-soccer moms and dads is based on ability and willingness to pay to live in a district with "good" schools. Which really means ability and willingness to pay to live in a district with parents of similar means. As socio-economic status is a strong predictor of educational outcomes, it stands to reason that "good" schools are "good" because they have more children with affluent parents.

One other thing: if a child of these parents has a special need, they are not likely to be segregated from the rest of their peers. Children with even significant learning disabilities are going to receive special services within their district. Children who do not speak English at home (and there are quite a few in the 'burbs, what with the influx of professional immigrants) will be mainstreamed. Yes, there are different academic tracks, particularly in secondary schools, but they occur within the district.

That stands in stark contrast to today's charterized, segregated world of American urban education.

These "highly sophisticated" conversations of the well-off that Derrell refers to mostly revolve around topics like who might be the most preferable Fourth Grade teacher at your school. But they are almost certainly not about "choice" - because all of the people having the conversations have already made the same choice to live in the same district.

Compare this to the havoc Joel Klein has wreaked upon the working- and middle-class parents of New York City. They now have to navigate their way through a maze of school choices, starting as early as kindergarten (provided you know how to game the testing regime). Books are published to help them find the right middle schools. Newspapers tell them how to get their "top pick"; blogs share secrets on "working the system."

This is a level of complexity suburban parents never worry about. They don't need "sophisticated conversations"; they know their children are going to a school in a "good" district with parents just like them. The "choice" that is offered to poor, urban parents is nothing like the reality of their own children's schooling; they made their "choice" when they chose to live next door to parents of similar means and values.

Now, there is a legitimate and serious discussion to be had about this state of affairs. Our schools (and our communities) are highly segregated, which accounts, in large part, for the "success" of exurban public schools. Is it fair to allow this to continue on the backs of the American taxpayer? Should we not be aggressively desegregating our schools: on the basis not only of race, but of class, special need, and innate talent? Or is that an impossible task; are the costs too high compared to the rewards?

I wish I had the answer; I don't. What I do know is that the "choices" offered to poor, minority parents  living in cities - vouchers and charters - are in no way equivalent to the "choices" made by affluent parents in the suburbs. It's nothing more than a distraction to even imply otherwise; a clever ruse to keep us from having the serious conversation that all of our children deserve. 

1 comment:

Ajay Srikanth said...

Outstanding analysis. There is plenty of research confirming that people choose schools based on race and other soft factors in order to enhance peer effects:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3097108?uid=3739656&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101271034907

This unfortunately leads to the perpetuation of segregated schools