It’s National School Choice Week – but are our nation’s public schools a viable choice?

by L. Duelfer

Since its induction in the 1970’s, the goal of the US department of Education is to assure that every child has access to the best school for them regardless of where they live. Private schools have always been available for since the start of the colonies, and the government has supplied a public school option that grew throughout the 19th century. The mid 1800’s saw a standardization of teaching so that every child would have access to the same education mirroring the Prussian system school system. Public education funded through tax dollars of the states became standard by the late 1800’s, and by 1918 every state required children to attend school, and even then it was only to the age of 14. ( Despite this ideal of every child having the same opportunity to access the same resources, there were always other factors when deciding if a child attended this school. Once they were able to square away tuition costs, there were still other priorities that the students had to weigh on when deciding to pursue their education. From what were the needs of the day (often dwarfed by household economics) to the skills required for tomorrow (most jobs didn’t require or utilize a secondary education). During the 20th century the number of school buildings grew so did the ways lessons were taught, with child psychiatry noting different learning styles and learning abilities.

With such a growth of knowledge and ways that it’s being obtained, it’s not an absurd notion that the current nominee for Secretary of Education in 2016 would be an advocate for school choice who looks to the future and sees the choice for which school is right to be in the hands of the individual. Hurray! Tomorrows leaders are having their learning be tailored to their needs today. Betsy Devos has referenced the need for school choice in her Jan 17 hearing, stating that “parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious…” and going on to explain that not parents are frustrated by their lack of accessibility to these options. Indeed, the documentary Waiting for Superman (2010) emphasizes how unlikely it is for a child to make it into a good school and are forced to play the odds in an even more morbid telling of The Lottery.

The opposition is worried about two big issues – is the ability to chose ubiquitous and are is there a guarantee in equity in those quality in those choices. The first issue is that fights this utopia of choice is that, well, we don’t all live in an utopia of choice. “Choice” is most abundant where there is already wealth and opportunity. In poorer communities there are only so many resources, and very often one new school is funded by taking resources from one school to another through a voucher system. This system basically evaluates the amount of money of a school that would go to a child and then transfers it to their next school. The problem that the opposition has with it is that the sum does not equal all the parts and all the remaining children in the public actually have less resources. One citizen interviewed in this article mentioned that in order to have each of her children go to their chosen school she would have to drive over 200 miles a day. This family resides in Betsy Devos’ home state of Michigan, and so after 28 years of advocating for a better system, they should have the best opportunity to prove that her choice system is obtainable for every family.

Critics of soon-to-be Secretary Devos are also worried that she will privatize schools, which will stop the ability for over site to ensure that a quality education lies within everyone’s district for everyone’s needs, assuring that public schools remain public as a reflection and source of pride to the local community. For instance, if every child truly were able to select their school the only institutions with enrollment would be Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and Hogwarts. Therefore a level of regulation does need to be in place to safeguard misplaced expectations from letting a bunch of adults wander free with the hopes of just controlling their world with their mind and a well-chosen stick but no concept of basic physics resulting very misconceived expectations of aerial travel. There isn’t an easy solution. Even if every classroom had a regulated size with the best resources available, not every person would learn the same way, need the same lessons, or be able to shine with their talents and aptitudes. If everyone went to magnet schools, there would be a missed opportunity of a solid basic skill set that allows people to change careers throughout their life. The idea of a school is to help mold a child into a productive citizen. Obviously there is a required level of the three R’s, but there are other items which falls into debate. How much science should someone have? What about history? International policy? Language? Do we need to name every state’s capitol or is it more important to know computer programming? And if you are in a private institution, how much can religion dictate the curriculum? Does the government have a right to intervene, and where is the line between having “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance to allowing children to go to a commune following the doctrine of fringe cult? For those tackling this issue, the worry is not choice between if children should take their SATs through interpretive dance or with a number 2 pencil, the issue is assuring the quality in every education system and where and how to draw those lines.


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