deconstructing school choice

School Choice.jpg

The Basic Idea

School choice is the principle of providing families with a degree of autonomy in deciding what school their child will attend. In some contexts, this might involve choices between options that are entirely publicly funded and publicly accountable, as is the case in the Canadian system, which allows families to choose between religious (usually Catholic) and secular schooling, and between English and French schooling. However, in its colloquial usage, the idea of school choice usually refers to choice between mainstream public schooling, and private or charter-supported programs. Private schools are usually partially publicly funded, and are allowed to charge families a tuition fee. Charter schools, on the other hand, are usually fully publicly funded, creating a more even playing field with public schools. However, both private and charger schools are allowed some scope to deviate from the institutional structures and accountability mechanisms of the mainstream public system. These include governing policies, funding apparatuses, approved curriculum materials (and sometimes curriculum guidelines themselves), teacher unions, collective agreements, and so on.

Functional Importance

School choice, in the form of private and charter options, allows (within certain parameters) for families wanting to select an education that is the best fit for them or their child. Private schooling has historically been associated with the provision of special schooling contexts (i.e., religious schooling, boarding schools, military schools etc.) that were considered tolerable within the overall social/ legal context of public schooling, but not appropriate for the mainstream.

Charter schooling, on the other hand, originated more recently as a response to perceived problems (i.e., stagnation) of mainstream schooling. Both types of schools provide a policy space for exploration of new and alternative educational practices. When implemented with appropriate constraints, both of these aspects of school choice can contribute to innovation, accountability, and the general health of mainstream public education systems.

Unintended Consequences

The principle of school choice is not as simple as upholding the rights of autonomy of families to make decisions about the education of their children. There are important considerations related to social justice, social cohesion, and so on. Private schools which are permitted to charge tuition are often able to generate large operating budgets, which can enable them to create better educational opportunities for the students there. This effectively allows wealthy parents to give their children an advantage over children from poor families, which undermines the principles of social justice. Charter schools with voucher systems, which allow families to effectively transfer their child's portion of public education funding from one school to the next, attempt to circumvent this issue by providing full public funding without any allowance for additional tuition fees. However, even in these cases, although financial inputs may be equal, there is still a social justice issue, because only the most active and engaged families (often those with the most educated parents) will do the research and leg work to make the best choices for their child's education.

There are also issues related to social cohesion, diversity, and inclusion. When schools are permitted to filter (in any way) the students they admit, and are allowed to deviate from mainstream standards related to curricula, teaching practices, and so on, their students develop with a different kind of exposure and awareness than students in other schools. If the deviations are minor, this isn't a big deal, and even in mainstream public systems, there are differences from community to community. However, where this becomes a more serious issue is in contexts where schools tailor to a particular demographic, and to the exclusion of others, as is the case in schools catering to the wealthy elite, and those which are effectively segregated along racial or cultural lines. This issue is further exacerbated to the extent that the schools are permitted to deviate from the institutional structures of public schooling. When there are deviations from standards, policies, collective bargaining agreements, curriculum guidelines, and so on, the there is less and less tethering the students in those schools to their age peers in other schools, and their developmental trajectory may end up being substantially different.

All of this may be well and good in context where mainstream public education is failing miserably, and where any deviation from the norm is seen as a good thing. However, the important consideration is that policy decisions related to school choice are, in fact, political decisions which pit one set of values against another. Often this comes down to a conflict between the values of democracy and social justice on the one hand, and market-based libertarian ideals on the other. Most countries have well-established public education systems that were founded on a given set of ideals and principles. The degree of effectiveness and quality in those systems vary dramatically, but it is important to bear in mind that any perceived shortcomings of those public systems do not constitute arguments against public schooling in general. It is always important to tease out the values behind school reform initiatives in order to grasp their implications for the future of education.

Educative Applications

At their best, private and charter schools provide space on the margins of well-supported public education systems to allow for experimentation, innovation, and catering to a range of special interests. These could include schools with special accommodations for students with disabilities, alternative programs for gifted or at risk students, specialized programs for the arts, for serious athletes, and so on, which may not be well served by mainstream institutions. They also provide space for exploration of different educational philosophies, with relative autonomy over policies, curriculum, and pedagogical practices—as is the case with Waldorf and Montessori schools, many democratic schools, and even some environmental and sustainability-oriented schools.

Because private and charter schools have a greater degree of direct control over various factors that affect students day-to-day schooling experiences, they have a greater degree of direct control over the hidden (non-explicit) curriculum. The hidden curriculum tends to be largely neglected in many mainstream schools, and is addressed with far greater intentionality in many private and charter schools—which have often been established around strong philosophical orientations. These philosophical orientations naturally permeate things like the school's approach to discipline, to pedagogy, to conservation and waste, to decision-making, to parental involvement, and so on, which collectively constitute the hidden curriculum. It is increasingly recognized that in order to go beyond teaching just knowledge and skills, and to affect students' attitudes, dispositions, and deeper learning in general, it is necessary to address the hidden curriculum, and bringing intentionality to such factors is the means of doing so. While there may be more constraints to what individual educators can do with these factors in mainstream public institutions, there is a great deal of untapped potential in all schools to affect student development in a positive manner through the reorientation of the hidden curriculum. Many private and charter schools, as well as some mainstream public schools, provide excellent examples of how this can be done.

For the full collection of posts in Aroundsquare's Deconstructionary of Education, look here!

Matthew Hiebert 2015-11-01