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?

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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.