Perceptions of School Choice- Chase Knowles

The following represents my perceptions of school choice after attending a school choice fair in New Haven. I try to come from the perspective of a parent and offer a critique of a system of school choice.

             After attending a school choice fair in New Haven, I soon realized that school choice was not as great as it seems. In fact, the issues surrounding school choice are multifaceted and complicated to say the least. It’s fair to say that most parents want the education system to be equal for all, and most parents want their children to succeed. However, with this system of school choice, these two statements are often rivals: one’s student’s success is another student’s loss. On top of that, the losing student tends to be already disadvantaged. Furthermore, this system of school choice does not pose a solution to the systemic issues in school. Instead, it moves the burden of school improvement away from the school system. Thus, if I were a parent, I would do all that I could to avoid participating in this “school choice” system. I would send my child to the nearest “neighborhood” school, and I would do everything in my power to improve the school system rather than focusing on an individual school.

One of the main issues with school choice is that it moves the burden of improving schools from the school system to children and their parents. There are systemic issues within schooling that cause schools to fail, i.e. classism, racism, tracking, etc. However, with school choice, the burden of improving the school falls on parents, as it is their duty to “choose” a “good” school or the “right” school. If a student goes to a school and is unsuccessful, it’s now the student and parent’s fault for not choosing a good enough school, and it avoids the issue that schools should not be failing students; the issue is not that students are failing schools.

A system of school choice leads parents to pursue better schools and creates a value system amongst schools with some labeled as “good” and others as “failing.” These top schools ultimately recruit the more privileged students because “school choice” is hardly a “choice.” In New Haven, parents are expected to participate in a highly confusing and complicated lottery system that advantages the most privileged. Parents that know less about the education system are at a disadvantage, because they do not know of the resources and opportunities that are available at the schools. Furthermore, “choice” assumes that parents have the resources (time, car, etc.) to ensure that their children are able to attend the best school, and it ignores the societal factors (such as class) that may prevent a child from attending these schools. Thus, parents that have greater access to resources are more likely to apply to the best schools, creating schools filled with more privileged students. As a result, it’s likely that these students within these “better schools” will have a higher performance level regardless of the setting, skewing any data that deems these schools better.

This value system across schools exists within schools as well. Students are led to not only compete for school choice, but they also compete for grades. If an underprivileged student is fortunate enough to attend a “better” school due to luck from a lottery, they risk failing at the expense of more privileged students. The advantaged students come from more resources and will likely perform better leading to positive reinforcement. On the flip side, less privileged students will internalize the opposite, and their lack of resources will represent a lack of “effort.” This shifts the burden of improvement onto underprivileged students. In reality, they’re the students blamed for not trying hard enough or for being “dumb;” they’re blamed for why the schools fail. Again, schools fail due to the system, not students.

Unfortunately, even though the school system is failing students, this competition to have the better students and to be desired by students leads school officials to focus more on marketing the school than teaching. At the school choice fair in New Haven, one recruit from a neighborhood school remarked that the fair was just another method of “recruiting” students, and he expressed that most of the recruits were more invested in making money and increasing funding than the children they’re marketing to.

There’s no proof that sending my child to another school will lead to their success. There’s no guarantee that I will get the school that I want. This process forces schools to compete for children and forces me to compete with my neighbors. It places burdens on parents and children to fix an already broken education system, and it promotes a marketing of school that distracts from children’s education. I want nothing to do with it and I want it removed. If parents, instead, chose to send their students to neighborhood schools, it would give incentive to the school system to repair “failing” schools as opposed to running from the problems.

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3 thoughts on “Perceptions of School Choice- Chase Knowles

  1. Jack Dougherty says:

    Hi Chase,
    Glad to read your thoughts on public school choice, which I’m delighted to see on the public web. Since we met briefly and you also were interested in my seminar on the same topic, I hope you don’t mind me pushing back on some of your ideas, to encourage all of us to clarify our thinking.

    You wrote:
    “However, with this system of school choice, these two statements are often rivals: one’s student’s success is another student’s loss.”

    Supporters of Connecticut’s interdistrict magnet schools argue that while school choice needs to be improved, it has created thousands of higher-quality educational options for urban families than what existed twenty-five years ago. Today there are dozens of racially-integrated, well-resourced magnet schools that enroll thousands of students from Hartford, New Haven, etc., which simply did not exist in 1990 (See data visualization of “Magnet School Enrollment from 1990 to present” by Trinity student Elaina Rollins at http://ctmirror.org/2015/01/06/school-choice-future-of-new-magnet-schools-uncertain/). Imagine what today’s public schooling would be like if none of this had happened. To be clear, Connecticut’s suburban-dominated state government did not create these higher-quality schools until they were pressured to do so by the Sheff Movement and other integration activists, and only agreed to do so by funding interdistrict magnets under a voluntary choice system, which protected white suburban families’ interests. The current outcome is the best political compromise that the Sheff Movement has been able to squeeze out of legal negotiations with the State. You’re absolutely correct that school choice could better serve all students, as I’ve written elsewhere. But given this context, would you agree that magnet schools represent an overall net gain in opportunities for urban children?

    You also wrote:
    “Thus, if I were a parent, I would do all that I could to avoid participating in this ‘school choice’ system. I would send my child to the nearest ‘neighborhood’ school, and I would do everything in my power to improve the school system rather than focusing on an individual school.”

    If you’re concerned about social equality, why defend the current system of neighborhood schools? When public school attendance lines are narrowly drawn around around student residences, it reproduces the racial and economic segregation in our housing sector. Why not argue in favor of erasing these restrictive lines? That’s one thing that magnet and charter school supporters have in common.

    Chase, I raise these questions because I’m curious to hear what you and other Wes students think (and also because I’m trying to figure out my own thinking on these complicated issues, while I try to sort out what to criticize and what to praise). I welcome responses from you and others here on your class blog, or on my On The Line book-in-progress, or at our seminar (http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/seminar).

    -Jack Dougherty

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  2. chaseknowles says:

    Hi Mr. Dougherty,

    Thank you for your response. I’m always welcome to feedback!

    In response to your statement, “Today there are dozens of racially-integrated, well-resourced magnet schools that enroll thousands of students from Hartford, New Haven, etc., which simply did not exist in 1990” I question which students truly benefit from the dozens of schools and whether or not it comes at the expense of the underprivileged students. Do these well-resourced schools truly benefit the least privileged? Those who are unaware about the best forms of schooling or those with parents that are just not engaged? If not, does the availability of these schools allow school systems to ignore the under resourced schools and instead allow the disadvantaged students to take blame for not enrolling at the “better” schools? Does the availability of these schools hide the true issues behind failing schools? Is this a solution or do these schools recruit students that would already perform better and use them as guinea pigs to demonstrate “higher” test scores relative to schools with less privileged students? I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I’d be interested to see studies around these questions.

    While neighborhood schooling may reproduce economic or racial segregation, I question whether integration truly offers support to the less privileged and thus offers an opportunity for equality. Based on the large gap between various demographics, I argue that this integration of schooling has not truly addressed social inequality. In fact, telling a kid that their neighborhood just isn’t good enough and that they should instead go to a richer, whiter neighborhood for schooling only seems to promote a mentality that rich and white are better–that low-income students should seek to be rich and with rich people. Perhaps erasing the restrictive lines while also having more privileged students go to underprivileged schools would promote a more equal, less racist/classist issue, and again put the duty of repairing all schools on the school system instead of priding itself on a select few and allowing others to be “failing.”

    These are my current issues with school choice and how it ignores a very important and under resourced demographic. I’m really interested in hearing your feedback and any research that you know of that may better help me understand these issues.

    Thank you,
    Chase Knowles

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    • Jack Dougherty says:

      Chase,
      Thanks for following up on my comments. I think that we both share a deep concern about how school integration is designed and implemented, to make sure that it’s serving the needs of all children. I’m continuing to write more on this theme and will share with you for comments soon.
      -Jack

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