The downside of parental choice

As long-time readers of this column know, I support parental choice, even though I’ve repeatedly stressed its shortcomings.  The latest evidence is seen in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest (“LAUSD guide: How to get into a magnet school or specialized programs in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5).

Although every K-12 student is guaranteed a seat in a school within their attendance zone, parents who are unhappy with that particular school must jump through a series of hoops requiring the skills of a Philadelphia lawyer. There are deadlines, applications and rules that are complex enough to frustrate most parents.  As a result, many parents simply give up and enroll their children in a private or religious school.

In an ideal world, of course, every neighborhood school would be so good that few, if any, parents would look elsewhere.  But that is never going to happen.  In fact, I don’t think that public education in this country will be recognizable a decade from now.  We’re already seeing evidence of that in the form of tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and vouchers.  Blaine amendments are being challenged in court, with the likely result that public dollars will be legally spent at religious schools.

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4 Replies to “The downside of parental choice”

  1. Or — fix the neighborhood public school so that the concerned/functional parents are happy to send their kids there.

    Neither parents nor kids enjoy driving/busing across town twice/day to go to school. Or driving two round-trips at night or on weekends so the kid can hang out with his/her friend from the charter/magnet/voucher-supported private school. Just fix the neighborhood public school.

    What’s wrong with the neighborhood public school? Too many students who are “problem” students (below-grade-level, non-English-speaking, and/or misbehaving) in the same classes with the “OK” students (at/above-grade-level, English-speaking, well-behaving students). The non-neighborhood-school options help few, if any, of the “problem” students — all or virtually all of the “problem” students will go to the neighborhood public school. The non-neighborhood-school options help the “OK” students who, by enrolling in one of those options, can be in classes where all/most of the other students are also “OK” students.

    We could accomplish exactly the same results by reinstating tracking in the neighborhood public schools. Track the “problem” into one or more homogeneous classes and track the “OK” students into their own homogeneous classes.

    No parents and students driving all over town every day.

    Instead of the higher-SES parents fleeing the lower-SES areas to the suburbs when their kids hit kindergarten (or middle school), the higher-SES parents could stay in the lower-SES areas and more higher-SES parents (and soon-to-be-parents) might move into the lower-SES areas (where the housing prices are much lower than in the suburbs and where the work commute is better) if they knew their “OK” kids could go to classes filled with other “OK” kids.

    And, the “OK” students would have the superior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services that the neighborhood public school offers rather than the inferior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services that the charters and voucher-supported privates offer.

    As I’ve argued in earlier comments, giving the concerned/functional parents the “choice” between multiple mediocre options is not nearly as good as providing the concerned/functional parents a best-of-all-worlds single neighborhood school option.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I agree, except it’s never going to happen because “diversity” is the No. 1 goal. If tracking were instituted, it would likely result in schools becoming resegregated along racial lines. We refuse to accept differentiation in any form in our schools, which is what other countries do. Tracking is the third rail of education. We see it in New York City, where efforts are underway to dilute the quality of the city’s elite high schools in the name of diversity.


  3. Agree that reinstating tracking is politically very difficult given that the anti-tracking people will yell “racism” and many elected officials/candidates will try to capitalize on the racism allegation for political purposes.

    But, in the inner-city school systems (which really are the only school systems where charters, voucher-supported privates and non-competitive magnets have gained any traction) the folks running the school system are themselves usually minority + the voters are usually minority + the overwhelming majority of the students are minority. So, yes, reinstating tracking in these inner-city school systems would probably slightly increase racial segregation — with the white students over-represented in the higher track classes — but these school systems are already so overwhelmingly minority that any tracking-driven increase in racial segregation would be marginal + given that minorities control the political power structure, it’s virtually impossible to argue that any such tracking-driven racial segregation was attributable to racial discrimination.

    Also, it seems likely that reinstating tracking would increase the total number of white students living in the inner-city and attending inner-city public schools. Even if most of these white students ended up in the higher-track classes, the pro-integration forces would presumably rather have a tracked school system with 30% white/60% minority than an untracked school system with 15% white/85% minority. Few classes would actually be more than 50% white and many more classes would be at least 30% white so tracking might actually increase integration. Yes — the lower track classes would still be almost 100% minority; but w/o tracking, most of the classes are almost 100% minority, particularly in the very low SES areas of the inner-city.


  4. Labor Lawyer: I think our obsession with diversity and our aversion to differentiation make tracking unlikely. We refuse to accept that students are different in their abilities and interests. As a result, tracking is seen as anathema. Other nations are far more realistic than we are. They begin tracking early in the education process. But we persist in the fantasy that everyone is college material and that only a certain racial mix is acceptable.


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