Can Choice Save Public Education revised

I recently ran across an article I wrote for The Nation in 1991 entitled “Choice Can Save Public Education.” It surprised me for two reasons, (1) Was I already worried that public education might disappear? And (2) when did I stop being such an enthusiast for choice?


At the time I wrote the Nation piece my slogan was “Small schools, choice and self-governance” was my mantra.

I even thought school size could be mandated without doing any harm—and probably doing a lot of good. My enthusiasm for choice began when in 1973 Tony Alvarado, the superintendent in East Harlem offered me a chance to start “my own” school of choice. District 4 was a densely packed district, about a square mile in size. 1973 was the beginning of a too short period in New York City when elected local school boards and their superintendents had unprecedented autonomy. Alvarado’s proposed that parents could choose to send their children to this new small school and I could choose the staff, and together we were promised a lot of freedom. Within a few years there were almost as many small schools of choice as zoned neighborhood schools. In a way it made the neighborhood schools a choice as well.

District 4 quickly went from being the poorest and lowest scoring school district to be having schools with some social class integration (more based on class than race) and higher test scores. Small schools and choice seemed to have won a victory. Self-governing schools not so much—alas—as few of the new or old school leaders liked the idea of sharing power.

Self-governing democratically operating school became my central focus from then on. As I was approaching retirement, I was attracted to Boston, which was starting something they called Pilot Schools. It seemed an exciting opportunity to explore all three ideas through a program initiated by management and the union, designed as an answer to charters—and an answer to that old question “Can Choice Save Public Education”!

Charter school were now becoming the new school reform. On the face of it, they could be seen to offer what I was looking for: Choice, self-governance, and smallness. Oddly, neither the District 4, nor Boston projects, which offered many of the things charter school proponents claimed were the purpose of charters, and had records of success, attracted the interest of the fans of charter schools.

Charters did provide many teachers of my bent the opportunity to launch new schools that provided more freedom and close ties between their constituents to try what seemed promising innovations. However, charters also appealed to opponents of public schools who believe, above all, in the virtues of an unregulated market place, and the chance to see whether entrepreneurs might be encouraged to profitably invest in K-12 education if the idea could be scaled up enough. The assumption was, as with Dunkin Donuts, that this would work if all franchised schools could be centrally managed and if buying in bulk would help lower costs—not to mention be able to avoid union wages and protections for staff.

In this new climate, choice developed new complications for me. Whose choice? For what purpose? It turned out that many “school of choice” were doing much of the choosing—choosing who they let enter and who they wanted to get rid of. Schools of choice began to defuse the power and sense of solidarity that held neighborhoods together around the institution they thought they “owned.” Rather than inviting more participation, schools of “choice” could take the tone “if you don’t like the way we do things here, choose a different school.”

It was also a step backward in the movement to school integration by class or race, as people chose schools (or the school chose them) where the students looked like them, or their kids. School choice and charters could allow White flight from “neighborhood” schools without having to move or pay private school tuition.

Smallness it turned out could also be as much a curse as a blessing it turned out. It could make life harder for many teachers in schools where increased principal power was considered the reform flavor of the day. Tyranny and conformity are easier to enforce in small rather than large schools!

Seeing how choice and smallness can be used has required some tough rethinking of old favorites on my part. In the next few months I would d like to explore these on my blog with you. I’d love reactions of any sort.

P.S. Read These Schools Belong to You and Me, written a year and a half ago by Emily Gasoi and myself.

10 Responses

  1. Hope you got my warm response.
    Ann L

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I love hearing about this work, Deb, and have furthered many of your ideas about the virtues of smaller learning communities. I often feel bad that I am not willing to spend my life fighting to get these ideas into the public system, because I understand the profound social need for doing that. However, I do see my own work on small schools, even through private sector paying off in 2 big ways: 1. Our endowment is now pushing The Grauer School increasingly towards “need blind” admissions, despite the high tuition, so our inclusiveness keeps growing 2. We are a lab and incubator of many exciting practices, and 3. a good many public community schools are successfully using what we are able to teach them about small, community-based schools to prevent consolidation!

  3. I like the way you describe what happened to the charter school movement and how it was stolen from the teachers by those who want school privatization.

    I like the idea of alternative schools run under the supervision of the school district. I know of a wonderful and vibrant school in Tallahassee, Florida called SAIL.

    It started in 1975 and is still running strong! The teacher who started it retired but is well-respected and now on the school board there. I think it follows the same concept as charter schools run by teachers.

    I’ve included the link.

    Thank you, Deb. Sounds like an interesting book!

  4. Brilliant thinking, Deb! And what a great eay to represent the power behind both your movement and charters.

  5. Hello, Deb! My first time in here. I am from Brazil, and I am studying democratic schools in my Ph.D. I heard of your work from Apple & Beane’s book, and since then I have been following your blog. “These Schools Belong to You and Me” is already on my to-read list. I am eager to read more on your reflections about choice, small schools and self-governance. Do the latter still stands as one of your core principles?

  6. Oh my gosh, Debbie, I remember that Nation article! I still believe you are right about “choice” and “smallness” in the way you think about those concepts and the way you enacted them in the schools you were involved with. The problem, as you correctly point out, is that those same concepts situated in a different belief system and enacted with different political and social ends can end up doing the damage we see around us. It’s always the context, isn’t it, that determines whether or not a single structural feature (like size) or process (like choice) advances or impedes democratic goals?

  7. You should review your “The Road To Trust” while you are at it!

    Conrad Stroebe

  8. The “larger issue’ seems crucial. There is reform, as exdmplified by Deb in the late 20th century, and ‘reform’ as exemplified by, say, Arnie Duncan in the early 21st. There is overlap. But there is also an analysis of how corporate power and money took over what was called reform. Then not surprising that charters often reflected (as public schools do) SES rather than what we want to call diverse and democratic. (More specific and personal follows….

  9. Certainly the SES-factor is crucial at the public charter school two of my grandchildren attend. It is Montessori-branded, which on paper is among the best there is. My reading after two years as just a ‘pickup’ person for 5 different kids ages 4-12: okay on teaching, NOT family- or community- friendly (except as parents volunteer and fundraise to support school-decided goals). The students are rainbow-hued, but only from families who one way or another know about it and fight to get in. (Yes it’s a lottery, but you have to enter. And once you are in, your siblings have preference.) And the deal includes No School Bus, so figure out what that means in a small city whose “public transportation” runs between malls.
    Ten years ago I taught for a year in a Baltimore City public charter. Like my grandkids school, the power lay with a strong-willed principal. Unlike my grandkid’s school, there were some students with very challenging behavior. I watched my favorite of those being forced out by the Spring — probably others too. You know the drill: Administrators who hold all the info and most of the cards go one-on-one with parents who listen, resist at times, and lose.
    The six years i taught at a straight-out ‘ghetto’ public school were better — simply because the administration put teaching first. 9And we kept tghe toilet paper on our desks.) But what exactly are community and democracy, when “parents” are mostly a young mother struggling with lots besides school? And teachers mostly blame parents/? Yes there are answers to that question, but not in an education-only or ‘reform”-only context.

  10. Great blog you havee here

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