School Choice 101

January 22 – 28 is National School Choice Week. As of this writing, 364 events are planned across the nation to celebrate the successes and energize further advances of the School Choice movement. Below is an overview of School Choice that doesn’t “demonize the enemy.”

National School Choice Week

January 22 – 28 is National School Choice Week. As of this writing, 364 events are planned across the nation to celebrate the successes and energize further advances of the School Choice movement. In Waco, the public is invited to attend a Saturday event, January 28, in the West Waco County library meeting room at 5301 Bosque Blvd. at 3:30 pm. Having extensively studied the arguments of both proponents and opponents of the movement, I will moderate the event and will give an overview of School Choice here.

Broadly, School Choice is a movement to give parents greater authority over the education their children. Though parents have long had the authority to select a private school for their children at their own expense, those in the Choice movement argue that public education dollars should be made available for parents to choose between a variety of school programs and philosophies. In other words, Choice affirms that all parents should have the right to choose which school is best for their children, not just parents who can afford private school tuition.

The Choice movement reflects both calls for quality schools and calls for diversity among schools from parents who naturally want “what is best” for their children, and define “best” in diverse ways. The movement is a response to the imbalance of authority between parents and the public education bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy developed with good intentions. Though early Americans educated (and at times failed to educate) their children in diverse ways, today’s secular public schools reflect an attempt to provide a quality and standardized education for all of America’s children. The system represents many high ideals such as the desire to ensure that all children receive a good education in preparation for American citizenship, the desire to break down ideological, social, and racial barriers that can lead to social divisions, and the desire to ensure that teachers are well-trained and that school facilities are safe.

To accomplish these goals, regulatory laws were passed, an education bureaucracy developed, “education experts” took over the training of teachers, and unions acted to protect teachers from their employers. However, even as the ideals of public education took form as today’s secular public education system, unanticipated shortcomings emerged that negatively impacted both teachers and parents. Teachers, who entered the profession to nurture children, became overloaded with ever-changing curricular and bureaucratic demands that treated them like technicians rather than entrusted professionals. Further, their desire to nurture and impart their wisdom to the next generation became severely hampered by laws that restricted their ability to relate their beliefs and values to the needs of the children they desired to help.

However, the shortcomings of our secular public education system fall hardest on parents. Parents hold a loving sense of responsibility for their children, and whether they oppose the philosophy of the “education experts,” the standardized narrowness of the curriculum, or the atmosphere of their assigned school, they have little power (save moving or paying private tuition) to give their children what they consider to be a “better” education. Since our system of common public education largely grew out of a distrust of “some” parents to provide a “good” education for their children, this disempowerment of parents is not unexpected. However, for over a generation, reasonable and caring parents have been demanding greater educational authority than the traditional public education system offers.

What kinds of choices do Choice proponents desire? The Choice movement began on two fronts, one associated with philosophy; the other associated with equal educational quality. The philosophic movement began in the late 1960’s, when Catholics, who had long separated themselves from the “Protestant leaning” public school system (and the few other denominations committed to religious schooling), were surprisingly joined by Evangelical Protestants who left the public schools when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to be truly common, public schools could not be associated with the prayers or scripture reading of any faith. Millions of families have now successfully educated their children in schools reflecting their faith and educational priorities. These people, like the Pilgrims, voted with their feet. In spite of the cost, they established home and private schools that they believed to provide a motivational and intellectually rich education that prepared their children for life, rather than just work.

The second branch of the Choice movement focused on “equal educational quality.” The academic and physical offerings of some public schools are vastly inferior to others. Thus, this branch of the Choice movement began in urban areas where districting (largely reflecting economic zones) seemed to destine children of low-income families to receive inferior educations. The argument for Choice based upon equal access to quality schooling has been strengthened by an argument from economics. Now, these Choice proponents argue not only for a right to quality education, but they argue that the free market competition of Choice will inevitably increase the educational quality of all American education.

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How has the Choice movement affected Waco? Here, too, is a divide between philosophically based educational interests and equal quality based educational interests. Though parents have long held the right to educate their children in religiously based home and private schools, they must still do this at their own expense – regardless of the quality of the school! Thus, technically, these schools are not considered to reflect “School Choice.” Though in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public money could go to religious schools through a voucher plan, only ten states have allowed Choice to go in this direction.

While my state of Texas is only at half throttle with Choice, it is rapidly accelerating in other states. Nine states offer no Choice opportunities, but these are being left behind by states such as Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia, and Oklahoma that provide extensive opportunities for many of their children to attend a variety of public and private schools.

Finally, much of the Choice movement has gained its strength from complaints against the traditional public school system, and along with the system, its teachers and administrators. However, I believe the latter blame is misplaced. I find few educators who do not give their hearts and souls to the children they serve. Rather, as an education analyst, I find that the shortcomings of the current public school system are systemically associated with a faulty public education model which, in attempting to reach certain good goals, strips parents of virtually all authority and discretion over their child’s education.

This is inconsistent with our democratic society, which is built upon a trust of the average adult to make decisions for themselves and their children. A better system of public education should recognize that educational goals can be attained through parentally chosen schools reflecting a broad array of educational philosophies, methodologies, and curricular materials. The state need only step between parents and children in cases of clear educational abuse or neglect.

In summary, the School Choice movement represents an attempt to both correct the imbalance of authority between citizens and our public education bureaucracy, and to restore “meaning” to education. Surely, the ideals of universal education, civic preparation, the promotion of social harmony, and safe schools with qualified teachers are not to be disbanded, but neither should parents be distrusted to choose a good education for their children. There is a better model for public education, one that has proven successful in other Western nations; one that recognizes teachers as compassionate professionals with a desire to nurture children for “life” rather than merely for job proficiency, one that recognizes diverse methods and philosophic foundations associated with a “good education,” and one that allows parents broad discretion to define and choose a “good education” for their children. School Choice represents this new model in America in which diverse schools are developed by both the state and private entities, and public money is made available for parents to choose any school that reasonably fulfills the public’s educational concerns.

Written by Craig S. Engelhardt, Ph.D.
January 23, 2012
Society for the Advancement of Christian Education (SACE)
(254) 230-1416

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