The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Public Educators Should Accept Choice" by The Detroit News, 8/12/99.

Original Title:
The Writing on the School House Wall
by Barry McGhan

In addition to the graffiti scrawled on school walls, there's another message nowadays–that, like it or not, school choice is here to stay. This may be a difficult message for many public school workers and supporters to understand or appreciate. To some, it may seem menacing, since it might threaten their livelihood. Others are jaded by all the reform fads that stormed in the front door and slunk out the back. Remember outcome-based education?

School choice isn't going to fade away any time soon because history, demographics, and societal change are all on its side. There's more to it than all the baloney about the benefits of competition.

First, the entire history of compulsory public education can be seen as a series of attempts to increase the choices available to students. Early in this century, vocational schools were opened as alternatives to the single curriculum of the regular public high school. These schools, appearing first in eastern cities, are now widespread.

Later, came the comprehensive high school with a variety of career tracks–all in one physical facility--to serve the needs and desires of an increasingly diverse clientele. The next big expansion of choice began in the ‘60's and ‘70's, with the creation of alternative and magnet schools, many still in business today. Now, in the ‘90's, charter schools represent the latest expansion of school choice.

There is also a shift in demographics propelling the move to increase school choices. In Boom, Bust and Echo, David Foot explains that "Most boomer parents have only one or two kids . . . and they know that the prospects will be grim for anyone entering the workforce of the future without a good education." He says that ‘90's parents are older, more assertive, and quality-conscious and want to have more say over what happens in schools. According to Foot, "The ultimate example is the charter school movement...."

Finally, according to Lappe and Du Bois, coauthors of The Quickening of America, "Across every dimension of our society . . . Americans are giving shape to a profound new understanding of the role of everyday people in solving public problems." They talk about schools' trends toward shucking top-heavy bureaucracy, empowering teachers, and gaining a voice for parents. Combine those trends with growing concerns for safe and secure schools that can deliver basic education--reported by the Public Agenda Foundation--and the perception that regular public schools are not as safe as they once were, and you find fertile ground for the seeds of the school choice movement.

In addition, it's all so very American sounding--freedom, democracy, do your own thing, take matters into your own hands, etc. School choice fits our cultural identity.

With school choice here to stay, what can public school educators and supporters do about it? Stick their heads in the sand? Run for the hills? Go down with the ship? Fight a losing battle? Try to hang on until retirement? Naaahh!

They need to embrace school choice. They need to start saying--as they have in the past--that increasing opportunities for choice is a good thing. They need to abandon the hypocritical view that, since charter schools were not their choice, they are somehow a bad idea.

The psychology of public school educators is inverted. They complain they can't do things that charters can, and that they have to do things that charters don't. Instead, they should be saying "Let us in on this act. We want those advantages, too."

A good way to bring this about is as follows: everywhere a university-chartered, corporate-run school threatens to open, the local school district should fight back with a charter school of its own. They have the buildings, the teachers, the curriculum, the texts, the materials, the managers–the whole ball of wax. They can provide special education services the start-from-scratch charters find so hard to offer. They have established lines of communication with other helpful community agencies. They can run these johnny-come-latelies right out of town.

But, this doesn't happen. Only slightly more than 5% of Michigan charters are run by local school districts.

Are public educators and supporters too complacent? Too busy? Not paying attention to what's happening? Afraid to try something a little different? Are they trying to avoid some kind of political confrontation with their unions or constituents? Maybe all of the above.

Perhaps we'll get some clues about the answers to these questions from what happens with the new Detroit Board of Education. Will they move toward a real devolution of power (something like that envisioned by the HOPE slate almost 10 years ago)? Or, will they only aspire to the Chicago-style top-down "strong man" reforms that a new superintendent might bring? It should be interesting to see what happens.


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