The Illusion of Choice – Kenny On

Proponents behind the marketization of education wrongly presume that all parents that enter into the market of school choice will have equal access to the variety of different types of schools. But these proponents neglect to consider how the socioeconomic backgrounds of these parents ultimately affect their experience in the convoluted system of school choice. Indeed, Hartford’s complicated system shows that those parents who are of lower socioeconomic status are at a disadvantage than their richer and better-connected counterparts on many levels in the process of school choice.

The time required in familiarizing oneself with the incredibly complex system behind school choice in Hartford puts poor parents at a clear disadvantage. The time required to fully understand the system is substantial. Even after personally having gone through all the online resources provided by professor Debs, the system still remained far from being clear for me. I particularly found how zones work to be especially confusing. The small map provided in the RSCO brochure that was divided from zone 1 to zone 4 did very little to explain to me what options were open for me as a hypothetical parent from Avon. The numerous pathways open for parents in deciding a school really required you to sit down and go through the information over and over again. Simply put, understanding the process behind school choice is easily a task that could take up many hours.

Furthermore, the task of familiarizing oneself with all the schools out there in order to make the best decision for your child is a time consuming task. The more than 50 schools present at the school fair made choosing the right schools to be pursued in the lottery an overwhelming process. All schools present were actively trying to sell their schools, often engaging in heavy marketing of their schools. Many of these representatives often asked parents what they were looking for in a school and then went on to articulately persuade why their school was a good fit for them. Even as a bystander, I found myself often convinced by their explanations. Although these representatives did a good job on selling their schools, personal follow-up questions to these individuals gave me the impression that they were stressing points about their schools that all schools had in common. For instance, when I asked the representative from Law and Government Charter school what set their school apart, he noted that they fostered analytical thinking and critical thinking that most schools don’t. However, quite contrary to what he said, all schools generally do foster these types of thinking. This particular representative was trying to make his school stand out through the use of ornamental language to describe the teaching method in his school when in reality there was really nothing special about it. Taking every statement for granted from these representatives could easily lead to making uninformed school choices by parents; an ample follow-up research on schools was necessary in order to pick a well-informed choice.

The time required in fully understanding the process behind school choice and also looking into schools is not something that all parents have. Most busy low-income working parents would not have the time to put substantial research into neither the school choice process nor schools in general, then say, a stay home mother of a wealthier family who could commit much more of her time understanding the process and looking into schools. Given how understanding the process is crucial in maximization your chances of getting into coveted schools, families moving forward without fully understanding the process put them at a significant disadvantage. Similarly, lack of research into schools could also lead to poor choices even if a family were to be successful in the lottery.

Additionally, the socioeconomic background of parents played a large factor in what kind of footing you entered into the process behind school choice. The type of neighborhood you reside in matters a lot in the school process in terms of options available to you as a parent. Those parents who reside in wealthy suburban towns come into the process with the reassurance that if things don’t go too well for their kids in the lottery that they could always send their kids to the high performing and well-funded local schools. For instance, the parents from Avon that my group was assigned to had access to its public schools that were high performing. If they decided that they did not want to deal with the complexities involved with sending their kids to a school in another neighborhood, they could have confidently sent their kids to any of the local Avon schools which all had excellent reputations. Low-income parents who live in poor inner city neighborhoods on the other hand could be seen as being at a fundamental disadvantage because sending their kids to the neighborhood’s public school was not an option if they were looking for quality education for their children. The only chance they had of ensuring quality education for their children was to go through the lottery process and hope for the best. Thus, all families did not enter the system in equal footing.

Contrary to what proponents of school choice argue, the hype behind school choice can be misleading because it does not entail equal access and free choice for all parents. The phrase “restrictive choice” seems to be a better way of describing school choice for those low-income parents residing in poor inner-city neighborhoods relative to their wealthy suburban counterparts. Some steps toward remedying these inherent inequalities of Hartford’s current school choice process would be to make it much more simpler. This change would help by giving all parents a chance to enter into the lottery fully understanding how the system works. Additionally, some guidelines and regulations on how schools can “sell” themselves may also be necessary to ensure that schools do not deceive parents about their schools. Lastly, giving families coming from inner city neighborhoods with poor local schools some kind of advantage, like a boost when entering the lottery relative to their wealthier suburban counterparts, would help level the playing ground in terms of everyone having a more equal chance to send their kids to a good school.

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