Thoughts on educational privilege from a middle-class parent

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When it comes to gauging the performance of Ohio’s public charter schools, unfair comparisons and generalizations are all too common. Apples-to-oranges comparisons between individual schools and entire districts, as well as casual disregard for charter schools’ high percentages of children in poverty (while contrasting their performance with wealthier children), are inaccurate forms of analysis at best. At worst, they’re intentionally disingenuous. But unless you’re a wonk at heart, these data offenses probably aren’t on your radar.

There’s another refrain from charter critics that disturbs me—not as a data analyst or researcher, but as a parent. It’s the implication that if you’ve moved your child to a school that performs lower on report card measures than the district school to which you are zoned, that choice isn’t a very good one.

I see this critique often from charter critic Stephen Dyer as well as from bloggers, teachers unions, and other choice opponents. Dyer frequently asserts that lower-performing charter schools “drain” public resources from higher-performing ones. You can see this logic at work in specific complaints or in sweeping statements appearing in just about every Innovation Ohio brief, like:

…half of all state money sent to charters goes to schools that perform worse than traditional public schools….

For a long time, I cringed when reading these generalizations because school-to-district comparisons aren’t fair ones to make (i.e., don’t be surprised if a giant district that serves a mix of poor and wealthy children outperforms a school serving only poor children), and because they perpetuated unhelpful misperceptions that charters “siphon,” “steal,” and “drain” money from public schools. (Never mind that some Ohio districts close their borders to outsiders, only accepting students whose families can afford to rent or purchase a home in some of Ohio’s wealthiest communities.)

But never before have such comparisons bothered me the way they do now, as a parent with a new preschooler starting the process of school shopping for my oldest daughter.

Like most parents, I’m concerned about more than test scores. I’m considering class sizes, school size, safety, culture, and whether there’s a good arts program. My husband and I are taking into account location (convenience), educational philosophy, and discipline style, as well as my daughter’s personality and preferences. This week, we toured an outdoor nature school, where my four-year-old and I climbed across a wet creek bed and up a small ravine to get to the learning space (for outdoor learning time, not recess). I chatted in the woods with the school founder about her pedagogical point of view in wanting the children to receive two hours of outdoor time daily, no matter the weather, and learned that students demonstrate progress through portfolios, not tests. As we departed, my daughter pulled dried leaves from her hair and asked with intrigue, “Mom, was that a school?” And I realized: This is the pinnacle of privilege.

As middle-class person, I’ve enjoyed dual privileges. Most obviously, when my daughter starts kindergarten next year, I’d be able to buy my way into alternative schooling programs if my neighborhood public option doesn’t suit me. We’re looking at private schools as well as the aforementioned nature school that charges tuition despite being categorized as a homeschool. If we decide against private options, I’m also able navigate my way into other public options by dedicating time and personal resources to figuring out our intra-district lottery program.

Subtler, though, is the luxury of never having anyone question my educational decisions—a very different reality than the one facing most parents in our state who are black, brown, or poor. These parents’ decisions to enroll their children in a charter school or private school through a publicly funded scholarship are routinely lambasted by those with an entrenched interest in district schools. These parents’ careful, hard-fought choices are turned into fodder for political platforms. Their quest for safety, school culture, better opportunities, or even just good arts programming—the same things I might be praised for searching out—are belittled and reduced to a single data point from folks who probably have never faced the prospect of marching their little one up the stairs of a school that is failing to keep children safe let alone educate them.

Parents who choose public charter schools or who utilize choice in some other fashion don’t care if their new school is a D instead of a C like their assigned zone, nor do they care about the data comparisons and discussions that occupy talking heads or analysts like me. This isn’t to say that parent satisfaction alone is enough; publicly funded schools must be held accountable to minimum performance standards, and advocates should do more to ensure that parents have adequate information when making schooling decisions. Choice matters immensely, but when public dollars are being used and the academic outcomes of children are at stake, safeguards must be in place. This is why Ohio and many other states have a default closure threshold for the most chronically underperforming charter schools.

Still, it should disturb all of us who seek to do right for our own children when restrictions are placed on others—either real or rhetorical—that we’d never accept for our own families.

Ohio policy makers have actually proposed legislation in the past that would prohibit children from attending a charter school if their districts were higher rated. It doesn’t require much imagination to think of all the legitimate reasons that parents might switch schools. In privileged communities, school shopping is as normal as upgrading your Subaru or planning your next vacation, which is to say fodder for fun dinner conversation—rarely questioned. In fact, I’m fairly certain I could make a pedagogically terrible decision for my kids and have my friends and neighbors nod approvingly, assuming that I must know what I’m doing.

On the flipside, when these decisions involve programs of choice utilized overwhelmingly by low-income families and children of color in our communities, it’s par for the course to point out that school’s bad grades (typically in a one-dimensional way—looking at performance instead of growth). Critics also attribute bad motivations to the folks running or overseeing the school; and accuse those parents of weakening their public school system and harming the civic fabric of the community. (Hyperbole, much?)

It’s not that I wasn’t already aware of these dynamics. Having worked in Ohio education policy and charter schooling for almost a decade, I know there’s a great deal of hypocrisy when it comes to “choice” and that education is politicized. But standing on the crest of a hill in October sunshine, my daughter caked in dirt while I contemplated a fairly unorthodox approach to her schooling, it struck me in a surprising new way. Those of us who are lauded for our “choices” must never be silent when other parents are criticized for doing the same. The stakes for our children are so very high. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.