School choice is one of the more complex and heated issues in the educational debate. Few weeks go by without a new report coming out or a new policy being enacted or changed. For instance, in recent news a judge in North Carolina ruled that the state voucher program passed is unconstitutional, while the New York Times Magazine profiled the struggle over charter schools in New York City.
The issue brings into tension several of the core values of our society: namely, the values of choice and self-direction, and the values of equity and justice. And at root, the question is, what kind of education is and should be available to my child, to your child, and to all children?
What is clear is that today all young people do NOT have equal access to an education that is meaningful and empowering. What is less clear is how to go about changing that reality. Do we create alternative options? Do we change schools from within? Do we resist damaging policies and practices? The answer is likely all of the above.
School choice is an issue that cuts through traditional educational divides. Historically there have been efforts from both progressive and conservative groups to support school choice programs and models. It’s an issue about which we have deep concerns and in which we see great potential. It’s contentious enough that the IDEA staff and board don’t all agree on every aspect - something that we think is healthy in an education organization. We do agree, however, that voucher programs do not pass the “public” test since their goal is to move away from a shared community responsibility for the education of all young people.
One of the major tensions in the school choice debate, and a chief concern for us, is that many of the parents who take advantage of school choice options are typically highly active in their children’s lives and savvy at navigating the education system. When these parents pull their kids out of neighborhood public schools, those schools end up struggling for lack of funding and community involvement. At that point, under-resourced students do not receive the high-quality public education they deserve, and the opportunity gap widens. The “public” in public education is eroded and we end up with two inequitable educational systems. While the extent of this issue varies by state and school, it’s enough of a concern to name here.
Connected with that is our deep concern that the “choices” often being sold as the answer for children of color and youth from low-income families focus on getting students “career and college ready” through standardized drill-and-kill-based models that assimilate students into existing power structures. Instead, we believe that under-resourced and historically marginalized youth are the most in need of empowering and personalized learning experiences.
Our worries have deepened in recent years as school choice, especially among charter schools, becomes more and more dominated by large corporations and charter school companies that barge their way into communities to sell their model. The voices of parents, students, and community members are rarely heard, and the particular context of the community is washed out in favor of the pre-determined model. We stand in opposition to this model of school choice.
However, the great potential of school choice is that such schools and programs can show how learning happens differently and they can build pathways for the system as a whole to adapt. This was the original intent of charter schools beginning with the first charter law in Minnesota in 1991. And there are great schools of choice around the country that are “community-owned” - where parents, teachers, young people, and community leaders have come together to create magnet options, charters, out-of-school programs and independent projects. These are not hedge fund companies - but the “public” trying to find a way to get the education they want for their children. Some of these schools work alongside districts and act as the innovative labs they were intended to be, and stay connected to the community fabric.
Clearly, the same vehicle of choice has been used to create sites of exploitation as well as sites of possibility, as education scholar Michelle Fine has said. The introduction to Keeping the Promise, a book about the various sides of the charter school debate, states:
“The question facing the charter school movement is whether it will fulfill its founding promise of a reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and stratify our schools."
IDEA’s work is focused on carefully sorting out which is which, in order to highlight schools and programs that deserve the public's attention. More broadly, we are less concerned with structure, in and of itself, and more focused on sites that value ownership, youth engagement, and learning that actually makes the world more just and sustainable.
A few key examples of these efforts are The Project School in Indiana, Helen Gym’s Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, the Minnesota Association of Alternative Program’s network of alternative and charter schools which includes several teacher-led schools such as Avalon and Minnesota New Country School, and the Boggs Educational Center in Detroit.
We stand committed to supporting these schools, programs, and networks, and to building the conditions on the ground to grow and sustain community-owned education.
Do you know other resources we should profile here, or do you have questions about this issue? Email IDEA Director of Learning, Dana Bennis at dbennis @ democraticeducation.org