School choice and quality don’t always go together

Students singing in a classroom with their hands in the air

Donald Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education further questions the role of school choice and local control. Teacher unions and traditional schooling groups have spoken out against the appointment, while charter school advocacy groups have applauded. Trump has pushed for both school choice and local control during his campaign. Traditionally, local control provides diversity in an education system covering a diverse nation. School choice will undermine local voices and create an unequal system by definition. The mission isn't to find the best school for one student, but for all schools to be great for all students.

School choice is a market concept attempting to be defined as a social good. A social good cannot be upheld for everyone when choice clearly rates one school better than another. A ranking system always puts some at the top and some at the bottom, the idea being that as schools compete, they will all become better. The goal though is to abandon the ranking system so that all schools are equally great. Even if considered a better fit rather than a judgment of quality, it still determines that some schools are not fit for all students creating a segregated mindset. The vision for schools should be one of inclusiveness rather than divisive choice. School choice by definition reinforces inequality.

Local control of schools must be centered around a locale. Local control is defined traditionally in the democratic sense of electing politicians such as school board members. If students' parents choose not to send them to a local school, then are they opted out of that local democracy? Do we opt out of the state, county, or country we live in? If local control means control by each household, then it reverts to a shareholder system with winners and losers like a stock exchange. Local control is a democratic tradition. The American democratic electorate is established by residency not by a voucher endowment.

Democracy provides communal control and real choice for a social good that impacts beyond the school. Some want to abandon democratic schools under the banner of school choice, but democracy isn't supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be hard which makes strong policy. Expanding public dollars to private and charter schools is easy, but it creates a weak system with no democratic check on power.

Real choice in education is concerned with the decisions that will lead to the best school for a community's children. It involves speaking at public meetings, staying in touch with teachers, electing upstanding officials and keeping them accountable. It is an oversimplified notion that good policy will arise in schools based on the perception of choice. Good policy is formed by people connecting to their schools democratically rather than being sold on another ad campaign.

The existence of inequality in society is obvious. Some schools have better textbooks, facilities, and fewer teacher vacancies. Society creates our schools. Someone doesn't fix a hammer with a house. Schools are too precious of an idea to be thrown into a risk-laden market system that some call school choice. The real issue is to create a fair society: fair housing, fair wages and fair competition. This will be the tool to create fair schools with fair facilities, fair supplies and fair staffing.

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Kevin Grand
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 6:57am
"The real issue is to create a fair society: fair housing, fair wages and fair competition. This will be the tool to create fair schools with fair facilities, fair supplies and fair staffing."How do you intend to actually reach this goal, Mr. Ruth? "Fairness" is a rather subjective term. And what role will the parents play in the upbringing and education of their own children?
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 8:38am
Mr. Ruth makes an excellent point. If parents send their child to an out of their district school, they have forfeited their (taxpayer in district) right to be involved in electing a school board, how their taxes are used, etc. One of the tenets of democracy is taxation with representation. Per a Bridge report, 10% of our county's kids are school of choice to another public school, not a small number. Some are, as he says, drawn in by the slick ad, and taking the easier path than actually getting involved. The you get the charters, with even less transparency and parent control, but that's another article.
Kevin Grand
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 9:01am
It stands to reason that if parents choose to send their children to another district, that they are already satisfied with the level of education that district already provides.
Michigan Observer
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 3:45pm
Mark says, "If parents send their child to an out of their district school, they have forfeited their (taxpayer in district) right to be involved in electing a school board, how their taxes are used, etc." As I recall, everybody in a school district pays school taxes whether or not they have a child in the district's schools. Similarly, a parent who sends their child to an out of district school still pays school taxes to that district and votes in school board elections. Contrary to Mark and Mr. Ruth, sending one's child to an out of district does not diminish a parent's rights or responsibilities. Mark, writing about parents who send their kids to out of district schools, says, "Some are, as he says, drawn in by the slick ad, and taking the easier path than actually getting involved." Consider the options facing those parents. They can, as Mark suggests, get involved in district affairs with a view toward making significant improvements, a course of action that will take years with limited prospects of success. Or, they can send their children to an out of district school that they judge to provide a superior education. Which choice is more likely to provide their children with a better education? Obviously, the out of district school. Particularly when you consider the limited time and energy most people have available to try to make significant changes to a massive bureaucracy. No doubt it would be quite civic minded of them to get involved with their district's schools, but their first priority is to get their children the best education possible. They can always get involved in their schools once that is safely accomplished.
Barbara Cherem
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 9:15am
School choice (kids switching between school districts and carrying their local monies behind them) has just shifted the chairs on the ship's deck,and not really had much improvement to achievement far as any study I've read. However, it has meant that the sense of community has eroded. Parent involvement and student friendships have been impacted, as students are basically commuting. As for public charters, the most complete study out of Stanford (CREDO) calls it a "draw" overall, but selective improvements do exist. However, in MI it's not good news, as we don't close our poorly-performing charters, and we have more "for-profit" charters than AZ and CA, the other two high charter states. Thus, we've gone to lots of trouble on these reform initiatives, skimmed public monies to several failed initiatives, and now have the largest proponent of these failed initiatives as our federal nominee to head the entire nation's schools. It's all politics and the financial backers of our legislators that get "due diligence"; in MI, it's no longer about: kids' learning, community cohesion, fair representation, equity or excellence. How can anyone think that it is? It's a terrible "joke", this playing with our children's future, and our children have suffered. Mi has moved from a top state nationally to among those at the bottom over the past 30 years. And I'm afraid this decline in quality will extend to public schools nationally, However, one redeeming light in this dark time is that Betsy DeVos has never headed anything large like the Dept. of Education. She doesn't have the skill set to run such a huge agency, and I imagine learning will take some time, so perhaps she'll be so overwhelmed with "alligators" that she'll forget to drain the swamp herself. Where she gets off thinking she can run A school, let alone our nation's schools is quite a degree of arrogance. But then again, the federal government is not the big player in education, the state is.--- Now, that's yet another matter in Michigan!
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 4:00pm
Well said Barbara. Education in MI has never had such poor results or been so mismanaged. Once an institution originally intended for the "common good" gets politicized (think education and healthcare) and privatized, cost goes up, quality goes down and you have incompetent politicians making decisions on something they know nothing about. I am not sure why anyone is surprised that Betsy Devos would be named as Secretary of Education even though she is unqualified, when we have a totally unqualified President elect.
Mark Swanson
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 9:19am
Mr Ruth comments take it to a point. Another concern of mine is with Ms. Devos's appointment as Education Secretary. She is a product of, and her children attended, private schools. This opens another can of worms. Will she be an advocate for more, so called, public charters? Or for a voucher system that also allows the student to take public monies and then attend a religious school (with no public taxpayer accountability)? Per our own constitution (Article VII, Section 2), the answer will be yes.
Anna O'Connell
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 4:36pm
Mr Ruth is clearly living in some idealized dream world. All schools simply cannot be great for all students. Kids are too different from each other, even within the same family. One size or style of education can not and does not fit all students. Especially not when some schools, primarily traditional public schools, insist that the most important characteristics for assigning a student to a school or a classroom are his or her calendar age, race, and family address. Nor does exercising parental choice in educational setting disenfranchise those who exercise it from school board and other local elections, any more than childless adults or those whose children have already grown up and moved out are disenfranchised or disconnected from either the school board or their community. Unless they choose to be. If the schools in a locale are unsafe, unwelcoming, ineffective, or unresponsive to the individual needs of students, that will lead most parents or older students to look for ways to improve their safety, inclusion, educational effectiveness, or individualization of education. School choice, where home-schooling is legal, and where charter schools and vouchers for private schools exist, can provide that alternative in time to help the vulnerable children that parents are most directly concerned with. Speaking as the parent of 3 twice exceptional kids, improving the treatment of kids who are "different" from the majority in a school system is a very long, slow process. One that I am *still* engaged with, although my kids are all now adults who attended an excellent charter school for the high school after a disastrous middle school experience. As far as a "democratic check on power", it is the lack of response and relatively poor outcomes from so many traditional public schools that have parents and reformers eager for alternatives they can access today, not in 3 or 4 years once a pilot program has been run and we've spent 2 years training all the teachers. Removing their students to home school, private or charter schools is their ultimate vote of no confidence in the traditional public school system. A system that, in Michigan, has gone from mediocre to far below average. A system that overall fails to educate ~ 30% of Michigan's students to "college and career readiness", in spite of spending significantly more than other Midwestern states do per student.
Michigan Observer
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 6:30pm
Mr. Ruth says, "Traditionally, local control provides diversity in an education system covering a diverse nation." Really? How diverse is the Detroit School District? Bloomfield Hills? When he says, "Trump has pushed for both school choice and local control during his campaign.", he is implying that school choice and local control are mutually exclusive. By what logic does he arrive at that conclusion? Just what is it that prevents a locally controlled district from offering to take in students from other districts? And he says, "School choice is a market concept attempting to be defined as a social good." I see. Does he consider the provision of healthy, quality food as a "social good"? Isn't that food provided by the market? Perhaps he objects to food being provided that way. Would he prefer Venezuela's method? How about houses? Aren't they provided by suppliers and buyers making choices through market processes? In fact, aren't the vast majority of goods and services we consume provided by multitudes of people making individual choices? He objects to the fact that "choice clearly rates one school better than another. And says, "The goal though is to abandon the ranking system so that all schools are equally great." So, as long as no one makes a judgment that one school is better than another one, they are all equally good? Is that correct? Shouldn't judgment flow from reality rather than reality being determined by judgment, or lack thereof? He is quite right when he says, "Real choice in education is concerned with the decisions that will lead to the best school for a community’s children." But he is wildly mistaken about the nature of choice and who should make the choices. Individual choices, unmediated by institutions, result in the most efficient use of resources. And efficient use of resources promotes the general welfare because it ensures the best outcome for the smallest investment of resources.
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 6:46pm
Maybe we should assign your choice of grocery shopping venue by your zip-code?
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 6:43pm
It's interesting how in our hyper individualized society and especially the particular philosophy of the author, where every preference, choice, identity, decision or taste must not only be accepted, but celebrated and accommodated no matter what costs or inconveniences to society. Except for one big exception, letting a parent choose where to send their kid to school. Then even more entertaining, listening to logical inconsistencies they use to justify this conflict. So I assume from reading this there would be no problem having a homeless guy of questionable residency vote on a school issue, but not a tax paying resident who does not send their kid to the local (MEA represented) school? No better reason to send your kid to private school is to be found.
Wed, 12/21/2016 - 1:04pm

I get the author's points, but If everybody chooses the same high performing schools, what will they do about the overcrowding?