School Choice—Who’d ‘a’ Thought?

I’ve always been highly dubious about so-called “school choice” initiatives, because they usually take the form of a voucher system to use public money for private schools.

I always figured these had the not-very-secret agenda of glomming onto tax dollars, to publicly fund either white flight from racially integrated schools, or evangelical flight from the teaching of evolution and sex ed. I don’t hold with any of that.

But recently I stumbled on a different understanding of “school choice,” and “market forces,” as well. Teaching professionals tend to cringe when laypeople talk about “market forces” in education, because in many ways it’s an inappropriate approach. Neither term has been on my “favorites” list, but events beyond my control may be changing that.

For all my belief in free public education as the bedrock of American democracy, I also have been increasingly critical of the way the “education-industrial complex” runs schools, these days. I want to find alternative ways that seem more rational, nurturing, and effective than the way it’s usually done.

My “aha” moment came when I realized that in the time I’ve been an adult we’ve seen:

  • the emergence of special education mandates
  • the homeschooling movement
  • the “small schools” movement
  • multiculturalism
  • magnet schools
  • a huge influx of English language learners into our schools
  • the rise of charter schools
  • a boom in computer-based “distance learning” that I predict is only warming up.

Talk about “school choice!” When I was a kid the only alternatives were public or private—but whichever you chose, school was run just about the same, and if you didn’t fit in, too bad.

But now, in very real ways, market forces are remaking schools with startling variety.

The thing is, I think we’re still a long way from what school will eventually look like. When all the experiments have shaken down and been evaluated over time, I think those who remember today will be amazed at what all changed.

For me, that’s a really exciting thought. I think we still have a lot of changing to do.