A Different Take On School “Choice”

From Dan Savage’s Savage Love column:

CONGRATS: Two years ago, an openly gay student at Hudson High School in upstate New York ran for prom queen. He won—but school officials “denied him the crown.” This year, two openly gay students—best friends, both boys—at Hudson High ran for prom king and queen and won “in a landslide.” School officials didn’t stand in their way, and Charlie Ferrusi and Timmy Howard got their crowns. Congrats to 2008’s rightful prom queen, Augie Abatecola; congrats to this year’s prom queen and king; congrats to the school officials who learned their lesson; and congrats to all the students at Hudson High.

I believe communities should have the freedom to determine their own acceptable standards, and lord knows I’ve got my open-minded bona fides, but before our liberal friends* get all excited and self-congratulatory, I have to ask:

If we won’t let students and parents escape failing schools, if we ghettoize students, if we ignore the broad spectrum benefits of school choice, and won’t fire incompetent teachers, why should a monopolistic public school care how students want to define their genders?

*Not to be confused with social liberals, like most of us here at WaCK. Also, I have no clue Dan Savage’s views on public/private education, but I thought this was an interesting dichotomy or cognitive dissonance in the broader liberal world-view.

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14 Responses to A Different Take On School “Choice”

  1. Tell us what you really think. Or is that a comfortable fence you sit on?

  2. Aaron says:

    What part of that is unclear? We give near absolute authority to public schools without any focus on educational outcomes or results, but we care about purely aesthetic results like this? How does that make sense? Something about fish, bigger, frying …

    • Thomas Merrill says:

      I’ve chosen public schools and universities even with the option (and support if needed) to attend any different institution of my choosing, and so I agree strongly with Aaron about frying larger fish.

      A really large fish is students/parents who don’t care to, don’t know how to, or don’t have the resources to use choice or judgment in their education. Whether it falls on public or philanthropic shoulders, somebody else is going to be making educational decisions for these students/families, and so these students have forfeited their authority. School choice doesn’t work until students know and care enough to choose. I’m not surprised that so many are concerned with aesthetics over academics.

      • Aaron says:

        I think you’re severely underestimating parents’willingness to get involved. Unfortunately, the system actively discourages such involvement.

        Experiences in some of the worst education centers like Los Angeles and Washington D.C. show that parents we might normally assume don’t or won’t care actually battle and become involved. The interesting thing is that they only get active when there are results on the table, or an actual future to strive towards. It’s a psychological effect very closely related to the intervention–>uncertainty–>stagnation–>intervention cycle from my Yandle/Mankiw post.

        • Thomas Merrill says:

          I may be underestimating parents’ willingness to involve themselves in public systems throughout the country, but the participation level is extremely gloomy in the poor, rural Maine areas where we both know many teachers.

          • Aaron says:

            True, but:

            a) that’s a very small sample size, the three examples I cited above more than offset the number of teachers, students, and parents in the north woods.

            b) Having seen public schooling from multiple angles (inside as a student, teacher, coach, parent who teaches and coaches, and outside as a student and teacher), our schools do less than nothing to encourage such participation. They ask parents to pitch in, solely on the school’s terms, and not question anything. Public school way or the highway. It’s not surprising so few parents take advantage of such a generous, community-building offer.

            • Thomas Merrill says:

              I feel like private or philanthropically-run programs (or even public schools in an area where there are multiple public options) are off-the-hook on the motivational requirement. It’s easier to be encouraged to be someplace if you chose or were chosen to be there due to a specific nature of the institution or the individual — think world-class student athlete, brainiac, or juvenile delinquent. A public system has to appeal to all there, plus the kids in the middle. I don’t think it’s fair to even mention holding educators in rural public systems accountable to the same standards as the examples above for motivation-building (beyond academic instruction) for such a diverse group. The sample size of pupils is small, but there are many more small school systems with even more land between them throughout the nation than there are large metropolitan areas where choice experiments can be analyzed.

              • Aaron says:

                “A public system has to appeal to all there, plus the kids in the middle.”

                Nothing can be all things to all people. That’s kind of the biggest argument against one-size-fits-all public schooling.

                It’s not even about public/private, charter schools are publicly funded and administered, they’re just allowed to serve students and parents better. Vouchers are the same. Universal public schooling doesn’t even attempt to serve students or parents, because it doesn’t have to. It has to serve administrators, and the education departments, and the teachers unions (who don’t even look out for the best interests of teachers, many times), and boards of education, and state legislatures, and the entirety of the federal education apparatus.

                We call it ‘school choice’ but it’s really about prioritizing students, parents, families and communities, because they’re the ones who have the most direct and serious stake in education. And almost everyone can recognize that, given the chance. Except public school monopolists. They want another few decades of failure progress.

                • Aaron says:

                  To rephrase my point to address the middle of your point:

                  If the structural problems of small rural schools are so different from urban ones, why should they be administered the same?

                • Thomas Merrill says:

                  That’s a bold claim that the elements of a public system are all so self serving with such disregard to the students. For sake of argument, administrators, teachers, and union members are a large segment of the community who would have voice in a charter system — what would stop them from fulfilling their supposed craving for failure? The highly-informed and involved public that will magically develop a voice of reason once the door is open? That would be silly for anyone to oppose the priorities of your school choice. I hope I’m not so blind that school officials have pulled such wool over my eyes for their personal vendettas against students’ best interests.

                  Of course there can be no blanket policy for all schools of all sizes, but in small, rural areas even a charter school would be monopolist because there is not enough population for multiple options. How frequently is homeschooling, the only alternative here, feasible or even productive? I understand that a charter school on the side of a public school will likely yield better outcomes. I’m not convinced that converting a public school to a charter school in the absence of other choices will improve education prospects.

                  • Aaron says:

                    In addition to how much innovative leeway teachers have, one should ask how they would measure success or failure of their innovations. My suspicion is they would have to judge based on some standardised test, so really, how innovative could it be? The teach-for-the-test problem remains…

  3. Aaron says:

    I refuse to type in a segment that small.

    It’s not that those groups or people are wicked or self-serving or corrupt. I didn’t mean to imply anything like that, only to point out how many different kinds of political force are at play in education.

    I meant ‘serve’ as in ‘respond to’, or ‘be obligated by’. Not ‘heap riches upon’. Those groups are the ones who control the process of education, not parents, students, or even teachers. If you disagree, ask some of our teacher acquaintances how much leeway they have to take initiatives, to innovate.

    When a system has too many masters, no one gets served. Too many cooks in the kitchen, too many chiefs in the tribe, etc., etc., etc.

    A small rural school is only monopolist if it forces exclusion of other choices, either by preventing other schools entering the area, or by forcing all students within an arbitrary district to attend. Just because you live in some township, why does that make it CATEGORICALLY the best place to be educated? It often is, but that’s a coagulation of other factors at play, family, community, etc., etc., not something virtuous in the rural school itself.

    I’m not saying that I have the golden key to education reform. I don’t. But you cant argue the current system works. That’s because of systemic institutional failures with universal public education. There’s no reason to believe that any other universal system will succeed, either, for the same reasons.

    Education is important because it allows children to move far beyond what they could be without. Innumerable options open up to a child with an education, a wealth and diversity of possibilities that are rightly celebrated.

    It seems foolish to think that there’s only one way to access or achieve such a diversity.

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