Graduating to a new conversation of parental choice

Adam Emerson

Americans
have generally embraced the premise that choice is good in education, but we
are engaged in a long-lasting war over how to deliver it. This war has many
fronts: We fight over the expansion of charter schools and talk past each other
on questions of their freedom and funding; we enhance the growth of online
education while doing little to change a model of public school governance that
remains rooted in the 19th century; we linger over the political
divide that insists on drawing lines separating “public” and “private,” even as
those words have become less relevant in evolving education systems that defy
traditional labels.

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student?

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student? And how do we enhance the debate to rethink how we administer
a public education? The resistance to customized forms of schooling is not new.
Many a well-meaning principal and superintendent fought back-to-basics schools
and International Baccalaureate programs and gifted education for fear they
would dilute other public schools. But too many of today’s well-meaning school
leaders and policymakers remain stuck in those old conversations.

Furthermore,
our dialogue remains muddy with assumptions that keep us entangled in old fears
about vouchers, charter schools, virtual education or, more particularly,
homeschooling. And that does little to enrich the support systems that allow,
for instance, a child to take Advanced Placement and honors courses at a magnet
school in the morning before taking courses through an online learning provider
in the afternoon. What of the talented low-income child in the inner city who
receives the value of a rigorous Catholic education with the help of a publicly
funded voucher in grades K-8 but who, for high school, chooses the IB program
in her district? Has the state failed to deliver her a “uniform” public
education?

By now,
traditional schools should have learned to co-exist with the menu of public and
publicly funded private options that have proliferated during the past two
decades. And states and school districts should have learned better from the
promise that comes with the autonomy of charter academies without spending so
much effort to slow their expansion and dampen their unique characteristics.

At the same
time, school choice supporters too often dismiss concerns of accountability and
quality with an arrogance that is tone deaf to the educational demands and
expectations of the 21st century. In their fervor to free the education market
from more Byzantine regulatory conditions, the more passionate advocates for
choice sometimes forget that public education is in the public interest. The
success of their cause depends more on the visible development of the student and
the visible empowerment of the parent than on the invisible hand of the free market.

This blog
celebrates the many potentials that come with school choice – through whatever
platform those options may take shape – but its mission is also to improve the
national conversation about what my Fordham colleagues have long termed “accountability,
done right.” I’ve come to edit Choice Words after having spent a professional
lifetime in education journalism and communications, developing principles of equity
and transparency in public affairs, but also challenging my own assumptions on
what makes an education truly “public.” I’m married to a mission-driven and
talented public school teacher who plies her trade at a coveted district school,
but I believe a quality education can become manifest through many providers if
we continue to move beyond our notion of the neighborhood school. 

Please join our dialogue. Our posts here will be provocative but
respectful, and I hope the responses will be the same.

Adam Emerson is the editor of the Choice Words blog and the new director of Fordham's policy program on parental choice. Keep up on all of Adam's commentary by subscribing to the Choice Words RSS feed.

More By Author

Related Articles