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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

School Choice, Sacrifice and Morality

I think that we can't say, "This school is not good enough for my child" and then sustain that system. I think that that's just morally wrong. If it's not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

This quote is drawn from an NPR piece about how "individual choices" maintain systemic school segregation. The piece profiles a black woman journalist's choice to send her child to a public school near her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn where the students were mostly poor and black or Latino.  

The concluding question above is a very, very difficult one. And as a parent who has attended, sent my children to, and championed neighborhood public schools of varying quality, who has also helped to found a high performing public charter school that my children attended, and who may at some point use private schooling, I don't think there is a single answer. Race, class and gender make the question all the more difficult. 

I am somewhat cynical about the whole public education industrial complex. My cynicism grows out of the fact that this complex is partly sustained by what I call the "originalist" theory of education, a notion that has been stable across centuries of U.S. efforts at providing public education. This is the claim that all public educations are at least roughly fungible and that somewhere, somehow there is value to be gained that can be accessed by all. This has never been true. 

School has always been a local, often highly idiosyncratic concern that is very targeted in its individual delivery and deeply personal in its effect. Standards for teacher training and teacher hiring have always varied greatly. School wasn't even compulsory in some states until the twentieth century, and the ages of that compelled attendance have always varied across jurisdictions. Many children scarcely went beyond primary school in the early days of provision of public education. And even now, large numbers of students fail to complete high school. The latter fact is to be lamented. But far more lamentable is the fact that a sixth grader in some public schools is better educated than a twelfth grader at others. We lament, and yet we do little to address this sad fact. Short of overhauling our entire United States education system into something that looks more like a nationally administered, single curriculum, scrupulously same-resourced system that *also* could assure that all children have access to fundamentals such as adequate food and clothing, and safe and comfortable homes and neighborhoods, I really cannot imagine any significant changes coming to public education across the board.

Yes, individual parent choice may promote segregation and other ills. But the choice to use a local public school is not necessarily a virtuous or selfless choice. In my experience across decades, across school attendance zones and across state boundaries, well-educated middle and upper middle-class parents, especially white parents, *always* manage to extract more even out of ostensibly less well resourced public schools. Even when they don't ask for it, administrators and teachers  give them more. Sometimes this largesse is out of pure individual bias. Other times, perhaps the majority of times, the reason is more systemically pragmatic: savvy administrators and teachers want to keep these families in the local schools.

I don't say this as an accusation against parents whose children receive more educational goods (and education is a good; just ask people who have been charged with stealing it) even from otherwise poorly performing public schools. I am somewhat more inclined to blame school administrators in these instances, but the presence of educated, engaged, well-to-do parents and their children in a school tends to help the entire school. Among other value that they bring, children from more privileged backgrounds tend to do better on standardized tests (testing, testing, 1, 2, 3), and high test scores make public schools look better. So I understand why some administrators do what they do. 

But even while I do not accuse parents who receive high value from less well-regarded local public schools, I am very wary of those parents who claim the moral high ground while attempting to dislodge from that windy bluff any parent who does not also choose such  schools. Some of the very same people who disdain those who seek to enroll their children in public schools in more broadly middle class neighborhoods or who castigate charter schools as private-style education because of their localized control over curriculum or funding seem to have no problem at all raising thousands of dollars for their very own local public schools through private foundations that provide new equipment for classrooms, supplementary books, perks for teachers, trips for students, and other extras that local tax dollars cannot or will not buy. Neither do some of these parents have a problem with "gifted" classes, "enrichment" programs, "advanced" courses, or other educational offerings that function as small, elite, and frequently quite segregated academies in the center of otherwise low-performing, often largely minority-serving schools. 

Just as all public education is not the same, neither are all sacrifices. Indeed, some of what passes as sacrifice is what morality theorist Romano Guardini has described as camouflaged assertion of status. It is a fine thing to choose a local public school where your child is "learning a lot" or "becoming a good citizen." But if none of those things were happening for your child, would the local public school still be a viable choice if the only outcome of that choice was to promote greater good for strangers? That is the test of true sacrifice.

Do my children deserve more than other children? That's not the question for me. I would put it another way: Do my children deserve as much as it is possible for me to obtain for them in the way of education? Yes they do.  And with what I hope will be their excellent educations, maybe they can be a part of overhauling the fiefdoms that characterize United States public education.