Speaking as the former Pedagogical Principal of a Montessori charter school, I’d like to invite discussion of a conundrum that I believe exposes the disingenuous premises (or the not fully examined beliefs) underlying the public dialogue about charter schools.
(Full Disclosure: I enthusiastically support the NAACP’s 2016 Charter School Moratorium Resolution withholding support for the establishment of new charter schools until their impacts have been more thoroughly studied.)
It’s common to hear opponents of charter schools assert that charters succeed by counseling out weak or failing students – a practice that is impossible and illegal for traditional neighborhood schools. The implication is that charters “cherry pick” their students and excel by keeping only the strongest. Of course, that practice may exist among some unscrupulous charters, who should be held accountable for their policies. But there’s a kind of “counseling out” that, far from reflecting an effort to shirk responsibility for the neediest students, arises from a commitment to offering meaningful options to realize the overstuffed promise of school choice.
Consider the circumstances. Since, in a culture that promotes school choice, parents have the privilege to opt in, or to opt out, of any program (always with the implied threat of taking their student dollars with them), charter schools face the unique burden of creating an intentional and reliable pedagogy/policy framework that will define their program regardless of what kinds of families (proclaiming allegiance to what ideology) come through. While I don’t support “choice” in public schooling, it’s far from clear to me that there’s any value to be gained from preventing already existing choice schools from counseling students out. Unless charter administrators have the freedom, in extreme cases, to counsel families out, we’re forcing them to accede to customers who bought orangeade and complain that it doesn’t taste like root beer. Then, if the charter doesn’t make things “right,” or right enough for the customer’s taste, the customer can still walk away, potentially leaving the landscape littered with charter programs that have no pedagogical spine.
With the exception of health and safety concerns, it’s impossible to maintain pedagogical consistency unless there is an inverse relationship between the extent to which parents are encouraged to vote with their feet, and the extent to which their demands are expected to impact school policy in the short term. If a school has any integrity, and especially if its staff are conscious of themselves as competing with other schools for accolades and revenue, succumbing to the temptation to become exactly what every potential drive-through patron wishes the school would be is a slippery slope. If charters truly exist for the purpose of providing a meaningful range and variety of educational choices, then it would be reasonable to assume that charter parents have less authority (than parents in traditional schools) to shape inputs and outcomes in any school where they may alight.
At the charter where I worked, for example, the philosophy might be summed up as this: in exchange for their freedom to walk away at any time, charter parents were asked to see themselves not simply as the entitled and demanding consumers the pro-charter culture encourages them to be, but also as learners. Parents were asked to participate in “parent education” sessions that helped them understand the sometimes counterintuitive practices that emerged from our pedagogy. For school choice to be meaningful, leaders of choice schools must have the right to say to parents: “If you are convinced that your child can’t thrive under the educational philosophy that guides our work (and which you chose), then I encourage you to reconsider your choice.”
Neighborhood schools have an inviolable responsibility to engage and accommodate every imaginable flavor of parent with an axe to grind. But then, families who are irrevocably committed to a community have more to gain from seeking mutually beneficial solutions than from making unwavering demands. That’s the beauty of neighborhoods: we hear, and learn to understand, each other’s perspectives and eventually find ways to get along … because we’re stuck with each other. The community has to work it out. On the other hand, doesn’t it make sense that if I claim the right to come or go with my child’s dollars, I should expect to encounter institutions that have an equal right to stand for something I may not choose to support?
The truth is, as long as all schools are competing with one another to demonstrate superiority in adhering to the same standards, meaningful pedagogical differences can’t thrive. Choice is only a mechanism for ensuring that the privileged and the entitled do not too soon recognize the hopelessness of seeking advancement within a system that is crumbling under the weight of its own misguided accountability structures. The children of the poor and the sick and the indigent don’t have any choices. Whether intentionally or not, our schools are structured to punish and shame children – first for the failures and weaknesses of their home cultures, and second for their willingness and ability to excel by standards that better measure widgets than humans. Nobody is advocating for the poorest kids, and nobody is going to pull them out of unsatisfactory programs.
If we’re honest with ourselves, school choice exists so that families of privilege may choose whether, to what extent, and in what context their children must learn to contend with the ugly realities that arise from vast and unjust differences in privilege. It’s become de rigeur to install options in poor neighborhoods to galvanize the white savior complex, but in truth, only children of privilege have the tokens that activate the machinery of choice.
The fair choice – the choice that would most surely move us toward a just society – would be for us all to stay committed to our assigned neighborhood school, roll up our sleeves, and work to create learning communities that serve all the children our society promises to educate.
If we don’t like that choice, we can always choose to spend our own resources to pay for the alternatives we demand.