As parents and students reenter public schools for a new year, they're hearing a lot about "school choice."
Having "choice," they're told, lets parents send their kids to schools other than their assigned neighborhood school, such as a charter school, a magnet school, or, in some cases, even a school in another district.
No doubt school choice will benefit some parents – just as any market-based system has some winners and some losers. But who really stands to gain most from choice and why?
"We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice," Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared at the Republican National Convention. Reporters at Education Week have noticed Trump's campaign is "increasing focus" on the subject, and recently hired a policy expert with a background in crafting education policy in Indiana to "work on school choice issues."
Although Trump is often known to stray from Republican orthodoxy, his positions on school choice are aligned completely with mainstream Republicans, such as Jeb Bush, who believe school choice creates a market-based education system, similar to commercial goods, where competition can improve product quality and consumer experience.
Democrats also pitch school choice as a policy prescription that will solve the problem of educating low-income black and brown children.
Specifically, this week The Atlantic has an interesting video report on how the Obama administration is advancing school choice as a solution to racially integrate public schools, and thereby give nonwhite school children access to the same education opportunities white students get.
Reporter Alia Wong explains how American schools are now more segregated than they were 50 years ago. Even though federally mandated integration policies, such as forced busing of students to create more racially diverse schools, led to substantially better outcomes for all students in general, the nation has broadly retreated from that policy, with the complicity of "decades" of federal leadership.
However, according to Wong, U.S. Secretary of Education John King has now "taken a firm stand on integrating schools" by backing any and all local efforts that make it easier for parents of black and brown students to send their children to schools outside their neighborhood that white kids attend. This thinking also assumes there will be white parents who want a more diverse school environment and will seek out schools with more non-white students, even though research generally refutes this assumption.
Wong takes a skeptical look at how such a system is working in Washington, D.C. – a choice district where nearly 44 percent of the students attend charters – and comes away unconvinced of the secretary's theory.
Her skepticism is merited. A recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center examines the research studies of school choice programs and finds, "The overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation – particularly in charter schools – by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs, and English-learner status."
But most choice programs are still relatively new, with the exception of a community such as Milwaukee, which has had a choice program for nearly 30 years. So could it be that the problem with choice isn't the idea itself but the way choice is being implemented?
To answer that question, I recently looked at how choice operates in the city of Denver, which has put into place a school choice program that has been praised by choice advocates and Beltway think tanks as one of, if not the, best in the nation.
To get a broad view on how the policy actually is working for parents, I talked with a school choice consultant who serves predominantly families living in the district.
Laura Barr has operated her school choice consultancy for several years. Business is good. Her thriving practice has five employees and frequently contracts with various specialists. Her fee scale varies depending on the needs of the family and the time pressures involved, but charges can range as high as $2,750, she tells me in a phone conversation.
She got the idea of opening her business by "listening to parents stress about the choice process – literally hundreds of mommies were having difficulties with the system."
Clients come to her, she says, because they really care about their children's education but don't understand all the options and the buzzwords that are used in describing various education practices." Some families are relocating to Denver from other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, and may have their employers covering the costs of her services. Others, she says, simply want whatever "edge up they can get."
She acknowledges, "Some of the best schools are really hard to get into."
What about parents in Northeast Denver, an area generally populated with low-income families of color? "If anyone from Northeast Denver tries to get into a popular school in another part of town for the fall semester next year, they're going to have a hard time," she replies.
"It's just kind of segregated," she observes about the city's school system. She recalls at least one white family wanting their child to go to a school "in the hood," as she put it. But many more white families are apt to want a gifted and talented or other kind of specialized program. "That's another form of segregation," she observes. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that."
Barr contends the ultimate goal of creating more school choice is to transform the system to where universal access ensures quality schools for all children. Why wasn't the "old way" of doing school providing that? "Any school ought to be able to serve every kid," she believes, "but there's not enough training and resources in the schools to do that."
Certainly, you can't criticize parents for wanting to navigate to the best of their abilities any system of education, whether it's based on choice or not. But it's hard to see how a system based on school choice – that so easily accentuates the advantages of the privileged – is going to benefit the whole community, especially those who are the most chronically underserved.