Parental Choice versus Public Policy in Education

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June 30, 2016; New York Times

The education of our children should not be seen as a commodity best regulated by the marketplace’s “invisible hand.” Parents bear the responsibility of garnering for their children the tools for their best possible futures; making choices and advocating for their needs is what a parent does. But as a community, we have a collective responsibility to the future of all children. At the individual level, the marketplace may work very well, but we may want to be more cautious when seeking to ensure that all children have equal educational opportunities. Across the country, we see the struggle between individual choice and collective responsibility play out in efforts to improve educational outcomes.

For two decades, our national strategy for strengthening public education has been built on the conviction that the marketplace can provide an impetus for positive change. Give parents the ability to choose the schools they want their children to attend, allow new schools to open outside the existing public school systems, and most children will benefit. Good theory, perhaps, but not so good in practice. We know that education doesn’t necessarily improve simply because there is more competition. When resources are scarce, adding competition to the mix sometimes worsens educational outcomes.

The New York Times recently looked at how competition has decimated Detroit’s public school system. The state of Michigan seized control of Detroit’s public schools in 1999 and began a process of “reform” that created an “educational marketplace.” Privately managed public charter schools now compete with traditional public schools for students.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, who is a lawyer and current board member of New Detroit, a civic group established after the 1967 race riots. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

Charters and traditional public schools compete for students and funding. Even space becomes a resource schools will fight over. In New York City, for example, a charter school and a public school are battling over who gets to use classrooms as both programs seek to grow. The beset school building is John D. Wells Junior High School in Brooklyn. The competitors are a branch of the controversial Success Charter School system and JHS 50. Success Academy demonstrates strong outcomes, surpassing those of JHS 50. Its plan is to grow by adding a new grade each year. JHS 50 recently reversed a decline in enrollment and student outcomes; it needs more space to support growing demand.

The two schools serve different demographics. According to the N.Y. Times, “The charter school has more white students and middle-class students than J.H.S. 50.” JHS 50’s student body includes thirty-one percent with disabilities and 29 percent speak English as a second language.

School district leaders decided to give additional space to Success Academy, which plans to expand over the coming years. Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for NYC’s Education Department, told the Times that her department was aware of the issue but would wait until October, when each school finalizes its 2016–17 enrollment numbers, to see if any adjustment was needed.

City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents the neighborhood, told the Times, “Having to squeeze into fewer classrooms could hurt the school’s ability to increase enrollment further. We’re about to take away space that they were using to attract parents.”

In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the demographic differences reflect two very different segments of a common geography. Having such diverse demographics, decisions about scarce resources should represent more than choice and market values. From a parent’s perspective, getting their child into the school they deem best is most important. But should the parents’ perspective also become public policy if the result is neither racially or economically diverse? If two programs are showing positive results that cause them to compete for the same schoolrooms, is it not in the public’s best interest that a compromise be achieved so that both schools “win”?—Martin Levine