Schools of Choice?

School Choice or Voucher Programs are again gaining appeal among politicians and the media. The idea seems logical enough, parents/kids should be able to choose the “best” school. The money connected to that student (which would normally go to their neighborhood school) would follow the student to their choice of school.  This would occur whether their choice school was public, charter or private, and variables such as attendance boundaries would not matter.

The very definition of School Choice means some students will be able to go to the school of their choice, while the other students will be left behind. The idea of School Choice is another top down policy brought in from the business sector. Essentially, the premise is that competition will make all teachers and schools “work harder”.  The belief in school choice means that schools under this policy would have to compete for students (read money – under this plan students become walking dollar signs) and that all schools would get better.

As someone who has dedicated my life to working in education, I can tell you that schools are already working very hard to get better.  Improvements in education are needed, but the School Choice/Voucher Program is not an improvement.   It is a program designed to maintain or actually increase the disparity in education.   Some students will gain access to schools with new technologies, books, libraries, a full rich curriculum, and services and supports needed to give students an amazing education.   Other students will continue to have schools with no library, broken computers, and a severe lack of resources and supports needed to truly improve the quality of life for every student.

Schools in disadvantaged communities will stay disadvantaged, because they will not be able to “compete” for students. Parents who have the time and knowledge about how school choice would work would be able to get their student into a school of their choice as long as that school wasn’t full. Parents who either lack sufficient time, knowledge, or political leverage to get their student into a “better” school will be labeled as “bad” parents who have made poor choices for their children. It will allow the system to continue to blame parents as well as teachers for the short comings of the school system, city, and state.

School Choice will also make schools financially unable to have smaller class sizes. Since each student is a walking $ sign, larger classes mean more money.  Having smaller class sizes (25 max in high school, 20 max in elementary) is significant because class size and teacher experience are the only two factors proven to increase student educational growth.

Voucher programs will continue to provide unequal education.  Some students will have access to schools in “good” neighborhoods, while other  students will be left in “bad” neighborhoods. Voucher programs will also negatively impact students of color more than their white counterparts. Through our country’s policies there has been a much easier path to success for white students than students of color. The School Choice/Voucher program would in no way reverse this historical disparity.

Voucher programs claim they will reduce the achievement gap in our country.  They will, in fact, widen this gap. A small number of students from disadvantaged neighborhoods will no doubt find schools of their “choice”, but this is not because of a voucher policy.  This is because these same students, based on their elementary school grades and test scores, would be able to attend magnet schools anyway.

The logistics of making every school a “choice” school is untenable.  Why would a white parent from the north side choose to send their student to a school in Englewood regardless of how good the school is? How quickly will the seats fill up at Northside College Prep, Whitney Young, Walter Payton etc. compared to Robeson, Harper, and Hope? Parents who have the clout and where with all will not send their kids to schools in Austin or Lawndale.  While parents whose students attend schools in Woodlawn and Auburn-Gresham will find that there is no space at the schools they want to send their kids to so they will return back to their original school or a school nearby. Through all this rhetoric of choice and vouchers the real issues plaguing education, our society, and country will still remain. School choice does not address the root causes of poverty, violence, racism, and oppression. Vouchers will not magically make the neighborhoods our students live in safe.

There is no magic solution or new idea that will drastically change education.   All that is needed is commitment to the premise that we are “all created equal” and then fully fund education accordingly. A budget is not a financial document, but a political one. A budget is about priorities and choices. Although the claim of budget deficits is repeated over and over there are significant funds available to be used to truly make our schools equitable for all.  The question becomes: are the policy makers actually interested in doing that?

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