I remain conflicted on school choice proposals. This article was not particularly helpful in resolving that conflict, because it didn't give me a lot of information that would be important to me in making my decision. For example, though the "open enrollment" plan the Minneapolis metropolitan area has includes suburban public schools, the article itself only focuses on charter schools. Since the suburban public schools here are amongst the most elite in the nation, I'd be curious to see how they play out in this program (Shay thinks that the moment black students start arriving en massse to majority white schools, this program can kiss itself goodbye). The article just asserts that Charter Schools are "accountable", but doesn't say how (and my reading on the subject implies that at least some have been taking parent's for a ride). Also, I think the article shows a more complex story than some of its cheerleaders let on. While Mr. Esmay claims "'black flight' [is] not making the public schools any worse, because everybody admits that after decades of funding increases and 'reforms,' they can't possibly get any worse," not even the article is willing to sign onto that message, admitting that "[s]ince the state doles out funds on a per-pupil basis, the student exodus has hit the district's pocketbook hard. The loss of students has contributed to falling budgets, shuttered classrooms and deep staff cuts, and a district survey suggests more trouble ahead." Contrary to Esmay's Panglossian outlook, this does represent a problem if we, for whatever reason, concede that charter and outside schools can't accommodate the whole district. And that, I think, is a fair assumption--between kids with disabilities to troublemakers to just plain old underperformers, there are plenty of people who for one reason or another will be stuck in the inner city schools. Do we just abandon them?
That being said, Esmay and Shay probably would claim at least a comparative advantage over the status quo, and I'd be hard pressed to argue. I can't in good conscience tell any parent to keep their child in a school system that is failing them that miserably. But this moves me to my second objection (or perhaps, hesitation) to going full-out on school choice. If implemented to its full extent (and assuming that Shay's predicted white backlash doesn't materialize, which is far from certain), I think both Shay and Dean think that school choice represents a long term solution to the problem of schooling poor inner-city youth. I, on the other hand, disagree, and think it represents a short-term patch. Over the long haul, I have serious reservations about a permanent policy of shipping kids here there and everywhere for school.
I made this argument in a previous post regarding school choice, citing Charles Lawrence III (who, for the record, is black and sends his children to D.C. public schools--let there be no claims of hypocrisy here). I'll briefly reprise it for you here:
[Lawrence] thinks that we should view schools as a community issue, rather than just a collection of individuals acting as education consumers. In a school choice model, a community that has (say) 10 school age children might see them all attend different schools (or be home-schooled). This may be somewhat appealing because we like a breadth of choice. But I think we also lose something in such a situation. Education isn't just textbooks and word problems. I do believe it is some way intricately connected in a community of learning, an environment conducive to intellectual and personal development, both inside and outside school walls. When what was a cohesive community splinters of into dozens of fragmented individuals, those bonds are lost, and I think that students will suffer for it.
Lawrence says that instead of individualist solutions, we should look toward collective proposals that will both strengthen the community and rebuild the schools themselves. For example, he proposes that we extend affirmative action benefits to students of any race who attend integrated schools, to discourage white flight (one of the primary causes of inner-city school attrition). Presumably, he would also support endeavors like local tutoring organizations, daycare, and community-based academic resources, to cultivate a healthy academic community rather than focusing on particular persons. I am not hostile to individualism by any stretch, but I think schools are a perfect example of where its better to build bridges rather than break bonds.
School choice has intuitive appeal to me because it lets people who are stuck in failing schools get a real education. But at the end of the day, nothing can substitute for race and class-integrated communities, where people learn not just algebra, but also how to look out for each other. Does this mean I oppose school choice? I can't bring myself to say I do. But I do think it has to be seen as a waypoint, not a destination. The destination is a time where every neighborhood has a school that is not divided along hierarchal lines, where students of every background learn together, play together, work together, and grow together. Utopian? Maybe. But we can still work toward the dream. At the very least, the affirmative action for integrated school alums proposal seems like a promising avenue for reform. So, I once again recommend Professor Lawrence's article to all interested parties (here's the link--warning, PDF), and remind school choice advocates to celebrate, but tread lightly.