Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why is school choice so unappealing?

I don’t think all schools should be the same. One of my complaints about No Child Left Behind is that it imposes a single educational philosophy on every public school in America: school is about raising short-term standardized test scores, period. That strikes me as wrong not just because I disagree with that philosophy, but because I value pluralism. Moreover, it seems short-sighted: why put all of our eggs in any one basket? Why turn educational policy into a nationwide winner-take-all battle -- especially if there’s a good chance you might lose that battle?

If it were up to me, I’d allow genuine local control over educational policy. There’s no reason that schools in Iowa City should have to follow the same approach as schools in, say, rural Texas, or even schools in more conservative parts of Iowa. Why not let each community do it in its own way? Wouldn’t more people be satisfied that way?

But this idea raises one of the age-old tensions in law and politics. To get more freedom for myself, I have to grant more freedom to other people. Many people in Iowa City might dislike the choices made by that Texas town, and want to put a stop to them. But you can’t have it both ways. Is it more important to preserve our community’s freedom to run its schools as it chooses, or to stop that Texas town from doing its own thing? Remember, if everything is decided at the federal level, it might end up that the Texans are the ones telling Iowa City what to do, not the other way around. Arguably, that is exactly what has happened, and I’m thinking of one Texan in particular.

So you would think that I’d be drawn to the idea of school choice, and at least in theory, I am. But school choice is complicated by yet another issue: we’re making choices about what to do with a completely disenfranchised set of people -- children -- who have no choice in the matter at all. Suppose our district starts up the Corporal Punishment Magnet School, filled entirely by kids whose parents choose it. No one would be forcing me to choose it, so could I object? I think I could.

So even in theory, it’s hard not to have some ambivalence about school choice. Then you see what passes for school choice in practice, and ambivalence turns to skepticism and suspicion. Though some people are making valiant efforts to create charter schools that follow humane educational principles, they can’t escape the law’s requirement that all schools are ultimately judged solely on their success in raising standardized test scores. The kind of choice I’d like to make is simply not allowed.

Meanwhile, though, consider some of the choices that are allowed. When our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the head of the Chicago school system, he “oversaw the controversial move to bring full-fledged military academies to the Windy City.” Andy Kroll reports:
Today, Chicago has six military high schools run by a branch of the armed services. Six smaller military academies share buildings with existing high schools. Nearly three dozen JROTC programs exist in regular high schools, where students attend a daily JROTC class and wear uniforms to school one day a week. And at the middle school level, there is a JROTC program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Chicago may have the nation’s biggest JROTC program, but it is no longer an anomaly. Due to increases in federal funding for JROTC programs, the military’s presence in public schools is greater than ever before. More than a dozen academies partly funded by the Department of Defense have sprouted up from Philadelphia to Oakland, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 passed last year will increase the number of JROTC units nationwide from 3,400 to 3,700 by 2020, at a cost of $170 million. (Peacework magazine obtained a list of schools that have requested JROTC programs.) The Marines are in discussions to open new JROTC academies in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, helping to expand a program that critics contend has blurred the line between education and recruitment. . . .

Now that Duncan is the nation’s top education official, anti-recruitment activists worry that he will use his position to promote the expansion of JROTC and military academies as solutions for cash-strapped or underperforming school districts. . . . “These are positive learning environments,” Duncan said in 2007. “I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”
Meanwhile, former Defense Secretary William Cohen is reported to have called JROTC “one of the best recruiting services that we could have.”

Can a pluralist object?


Doris said...

Sure a pluralist can object!

Below is a link to a great essay from the Berkeley Review of Education on the "Militarization and Privatization of Public Schools." The children being guided toward these schools aren't being offered real choices. If the nearby traditional school gets no funding and the military school does, that's not a real choice. That's coercion. Moreover, if the broader culture discursively constructs working class minority children as "undisciplined" and "threatening" and in need of "obedience training," that further reduces their choices because going into the military becomes one of the few available ways they can "prove" they'll be good workers to future employers.

By contrast, the children of the affluent classes get to demonstrate how "disciplined" they are by showing off their skill at playing musical instruments, competing on debate teams, etc.

Chris said...

Doris -- Thanks for the link! Here's a clickable version.

Chris said...

One point I didn't make here (because I made it just a few posts ago) is that we're all affected by other people's school choices, since we live in a world run by people who've gone through these schools. So yes, I can object.

But still: should I want to outlaw these military-school "options"? Or should I just want more and better options? Should I want to persuade legislators to shut them down, or just to dissuade parents from choosing them? My fear is that, if I indulge my impulse to ban schools like those, I'm just setting myself up for getting outvoted and having my own preferred options banned -- which is where we seem to be.

Doris said...

Tough issues. I do think that it is important to argue, on behalf of all children, against government policies that subject some to a greater degree of military recruitment rhetoric than others.

At the same time, it seems to me that the strongest practical response is probably to focus on advocating for equal/comparable educational and employment opportunities in the context of lobbying our government to implement something like a "new New Deal"--to shift money away from defense spending toward creation of jobs that will rebuild the infrastructure of this country, address ecological damage, and so on.

Then again, maybe if we simply re-implemented the draft, the need to generate arguments opposing militarization would no longer be so abstract for far too many of us . . . .

Anonymous said...

The point of school choice, as you rightly note, is that other parents/students may make choices you disapprove of. And, yes, if you don't support choice for all, you don't get choice for yourself. So be it. Choice for all would be better.
How about a charter IB high school? A charter Montessori grade school? And, yes, a military option. Accredited private schools must meet the achievement standards set by the state. Whether you agree or disagree with those standards, they are legally set. Any accredited school must meet those standards. Once that is done, what is wrong with parents, and children chosing any or more of these options? And - BTW - if your child doesn't want to attend a military school - they're not going to.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- I think there's some sense to what you're saying. What bothers me most is that somehow only the more authoritarian and standardized-test-driven approaches are offered as choices. And I hope you're right that my kids won't have to attend a military school if they don't want to. The way things are headed at their current school, I'm not so sure.