The School Choice Misnomer

I wrote this quite a while ago, but the topic of school choice is bound to come up a lot now that Trump is president, so I hit the Publish button. This topic of popular discussion, School Choice, is misnamed. People discussing school choice are usually discussing nothing more than a change in limitations, a redefining of the mandated options, not free choice.
Some number of years ago (my way of saying my memory is shot and I have absolutely no ability to judge time anymore) I listened to research showing that children self-regulate their diets when they’re consistently offered a variety of foods and allowed to eat only what they want. A lot of anxiety over food is created by interfering with that self regulation and trying to control what children eat. The concept of school choice is kind of like giving the child who continually balks at the overcooked broccoli in front of them a chance to choose steamed cabbage and forcing them to eat one or the other. Meanwhile, some kid on the other side of the tracks gets to choose between cherry tomatoes and buttered peas. They both have a choice, so what’s the problem?

My analogy isn’t great, but the problem isn’t just that most children think the second choice is much better than the first. Even if they’re given the more palatable choice, some children hate peas and get diarrhea from tomatoes. We shouldn’t be forcing them to eat things they don’t want. No predefined choice will meet everyone’s needs. A kid, and the parents of said kid, should be allowed to say no thank you to the standard options and go find something palatable somewhere else. Better yet, they should get to vote on the menu items and bring their own food.  Real choice includes the freedom to evaluate options, abstain when none meet your needs, and come up with your own alternatives.

When I became really unhappy with our schools I longed for a better choice. Originally, I didn’t expect any problem. The local schools are well ranked and send a lot of kids to selective colleges, so I thought they would serve us just fine. (I looked through a different lens then). We originally moved here because it’s the town my husband found a good job in, but we wouldn’t have bought a house here if the schools didn’t have a good reputation. The town I worked in was even whiter, more expensive, and more exclusive, so this town felt like the more reasonable choice. Actually, we looked in all the surrounding towns for at least a year and finally, when we were carrying a newborn baby around on our search, decided we couldn’t wait anymore . Clearly I had misgivings even then. I wish I’d trusted my instincts more.  The actual experience of living here as a two working parent family raised a lot of conflicts – especially once we joined in the warped practice of living up to the daily expectations of school.  But I didn’t think I had any real choice.

After our second child started school it was clear he wasn’t thrilled with the whole school experience. It took a lot of effort to keep things from imploding, and some years it was almost impossible. We looked at the local Montessori school, hoping it would be a better solution. I preferred it, but my son was unsure. He didn’t really want to leave his friends behind, he just wanted school to be better. We never gave the Montessori school any serious consideration, anyway. I didn’t think it was wise for us to pay over $18,000 a year in tuition and commit to a major role in fundraising and volunteering. It wasn’t out of the question. If I wasn’t working, I’d have been thrilled to volunteer, and the question of whether we could have afforded the tuition was debatable. A lot of people who were no more financially well off than us chose to pay for private schools, or pay for tony towns with elite public schools, (which is one reason some middle class people end up financially insecure, as Neal Gabler wrote about in the Atlantic.) Something else about it made me uncomfortable; it left me with that icky feeling of exclusivity.

We are rife with conflicts. On the one hand, we’re supposed to do all we can to ensure a good education for our children, and society judges us harshly if we don’t. On the other hand, we’re supposed to believe that public schools create equality and fairness, and to support them in that effort. But the mutant, not so invisible, third hand, the one that steers our economy, clearly favors people who choose the exclusive option, humanity be damned. My hands were so busy trying to take care of my family and make a living that I failed to see the roots of my own conflict. I was grappling with a value system I didn’t believe in, but still identified with. Part of me still wanted to claim my exclusive position as one of the well-educated, and therefore superior, members of society, while another part of me worried that it wasn’t true. In other words, I’d embodied the screwed up value system that schools teach us to measure ourselves by, even though I’d found the whole process so lacking.  My life was so frenzied that I had no space to create a new alternative…at least, that’s what it felt like. My rat self was certainly racing around in circles to prove my rat worth.

I now want to spread the news that the choice to be a scurrying rat is just that, a choice – a real choice, not a made-up mandatory public vs. charter choice. It’s our choice, especially those of us with the privilege to be exclusive. We need to stop defining ourselves by these screwed up values. Stop living life according to the judgments of exclusivity. Life will not come crashing down around you if admit that maybe you’re a normal human who isn’t really better than those ghastly, uneducated, people we work so hard to distinguish ourselves from. It is not just a choice, but an actual moral decision to say “no thank you” when none of the choices on the plate in front of you are healthy. You won’t starve. Go find something to eat somewhere else.

My aversion to the exclusivity of private schooling, and the aspiration to join its exclusive ranks as a sanctified equal through fancy public schools – especially in white suburbia, is rooted deep in my history. Most people choose exclusive schools because they truly believe they represent something superior. They also offer an avenue to status, which is really appealing in the existential struggle to reconcile your worth in this extremely judgmental culture.  I had plenty of reasons to see through that moral veneer, but I was still judging myself in its reflection.  Hence – a lot of personal conflict that my children felt the effects of. There were school choices that would have given my children great advantages, but a little bit of my real voice kept whispering in my ear, “don’t do it.”  And, honestly, the waves of shame from memories of my adolescence in prep school, and the hobbled adulthood that followed, helped keep me away. This isn’t just the high minded decision of an adult rejecting something I’ve risen above, it’s the screaming shame of an adolescent who never fully recovered. The racing rat was just trying to find a way out.

Isn’t that the way it works? As the person who felt the most shame, I became the person most intent on gaining a moral advantage and earning respect.

Done with that now.

Keeping my kids in the public schools didn’t protect them from the lessons of exclusivity. The same values are at play in the competition to get as many graduates into elite colleges as possible and the wholehearted adulation of the sanctified education as merit myth. This is especially true in the public schools of wealthy suburbia. I landed square in the middle of my own conflict.

Also how it works.

I have become more and more  convinced that our current focus on educational aspiration as the solution to all our country’s ills is mistaken.  When an acquaintance of mine, who had enrolled her children in a prestigious private school, put us on the contact list of potentially interested candidates, I wasn’t  surprised. She was everything that made me uncomfortable with the idea – a member of the local country club and of several other clubs that tended toward exclusion. She became my mental poster child of why this problem is so entrenched. Exclusivity is a selling point for these schools, and a lot of people want to buy it.  Yes, the private school education has probably put her children at an advantage for college entry and for a certain kind of economic success and social status. I just wish we would stop viewing that advantage as merit. It leads to a specific kind of interaction with the world that is causing more harm than good. It separates the exclusively educated from the people around them, who are demoted to an intellectual “lower” class.

What does this have to do with school choice? Charter schools, in many cases, are simply an extension of that same thinking. They present themselves as a publicly available avenue into success, but the success is based on the same flawed value system that feeds off exclusion. Some charter schools will be good, at least for some people, but they still have to compete in a framework that favors exclusivity.

So what if you disagree with everything I just said and believe in school choice as the antidote to exclusion? What if you believe that school choice introduces free market forces into public education, thereby liberating people from being forced into bad schools? Then I’ll respond with the point I actually intended to make before I rambled on about my personal struggle with exclusivity, as if it were actually interesting.  My main point is that the idea that privately run, publicly funded, charter schools create “free market” education is faulty.  It doesn’t.  I’m all about free choice, but market forces rely on a freely participating consumer base. Market forces are only real when people choose to enter the market for something they truly want. Consumers don’t enter the educational market by choice. A compulsory market will never be a free market. Education is only a consumer good for those people who actually want the choices available to them, and who believe they will benefit from the consumption – mainly those who are already well-off. Schooling is more like forced labor for a good share of the less well-off population. This is a concept that occurred to me years ago, but I love the way Yong Zhao describes it in this keynote address for AERO. He points out that many school districts have actually formalized the practice of determining teacher pay based on the results of their student’s work. It is a form of child labor. People have just convinced themselves that it’s the labor children are supposed to be doing for their own good. Shame on the parent who doesn’t agree.

The child doesn’t have any say in the matter one way or the other.

School isn’t a consumer good for the kids who find themselves in truancy court. It isn’t a consumer good for the students labelled as learning disabled and required to participate in daily exhibitions of that stated inferiority. It isn’t a consumer good for the boy who is acutely aware that his teacher dislikes him, or the girl who never lives up to her teacher’s expectations. It isn’t a consumer good for the children who want to talk to their friends and explore the world, but can only sneak those activities in between bells. It isn’t a consumer good for the kid who misses the one class she likes because her remedial reading program conflicts with art, or the kid who is marked as a failure, or the kid at the back of the room who is bored to death and desperate for authentic human interactions, or the kid who is laughed at on the playground and cries every day to just be allowed to stay home. It isn’t a consumer good to the kid who truly loves math, and hates his math class, or the legions of inner city kids who spend every day engaged in learning things designed for them by previous generations of people who have no clue what will really improve their lives.

So the conversation about school reform misses the point. Who gets to create the options? Reformers? School Boards? Teachers? What if none of the options are worthwhile? It makes perfect sense for some people to drop out when the system doesn’t serve their needs or desires. We shouldn’t penalize that choice. Better yet, we should allow those kids to have a real voice. “I don’t want to” should be listened to and responded to with “what do you want?”

In a recent conversation with my brother he recounted a story from his wife, who works in the public schools. I don’t know the details, but the basic story was about a classroom that was hindered by the actions of one student – a boy who was clearly uncomfortable and unhappy. He made continuous beeping noises that interrupted the teacher and whatever activity was happening. She was being driven crazy and naturally ended up mad at the kid. It is tempting to point to that child as the problem. It is tempting to say, “that kid is misbehaving!” or, “see, this is what happens when we’re required to have mixed ability classrooms.” But that puts the blame in the wrong place. That kid had no choice. He was being forced to stay there, where he didn’t want to be, in a situation that made him the object of everyone else’s discomfort. The beeping sounds out of an unhappy kid’s mouth aren’t a sign of a problem child. They’re the sign of a problem situation. That child is being tortured. Those sounds are his only means of expression. He needs to be allowed to act on his own behalf and stand up and leave – and he needs to be giving somewhere to go that isn’t defined as punishment and isn’t a “containment” area. He needs the freedom to control his life in some meaningful way without being exiled from the community he’s forced to be a part of because we’ve decided that having everyone learn the same rehashed vomit of approved subjects is somehow necessary for a democratic populace. We are preventing his self-regulation by trapping him in a toxic situation. Never mind asking the experts about what his educational diet should contain and then trying to force feed it to him. Give him a variety of choices, including “no thank you”. Let him self-regulate.

School choice is meaningless without the choice to say “no thank you”.



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