What do we really mean when we talk about school choice?

 "Our schools, our voice!" Photo courtesy of Washington State Charter Schools Association.

"Our schools, our voice!" Photo courtesy of Washington State Charter Schools Association.

What do we really mean when we talk about school choice?

It’s a much-debated idea in the education world, this idea of school choice. Just a mention of the term often has people jumping onto either side of the charter-school line in the sand.

Some throw around terms like privatization and fret endlessly over funding streams and diversions, worrying that already-underfunded traditional public schools will be further undermined by having a piece of their pie go to the charter sector.

Some of us, on the other hand, can’t help but feel that our public school system has already been undermined by its own long-term, systemic failure to educate all kids equitably. Some of us feel that more money into a broken system won’t solve anything, and that we need new and different kinds of public schools. And we like to remind folks that supporting school choice really just means believing that parents should be allowed to choose what’s best for their kids.

I see charters offering that opportunity to innovate, to consider alternatives, to serve long-neglected students (and when I say charters, I only mean public charters. For-profit charters are corporate nonsense, and they’re unlawful in Washington State.).

Maybe the question to ask is whether or not you believe our schools need to change, or if you believe they’re already producing acceptable results. Because for me, they’re falling short, and I know that if we limit our schools only to operating within the same framework they always have, we cannot expect them to produce different results.

And besides, all this talk about school choice tends to miss an important point: school choice already exists if you can afford it. Yet we aren’t shouting fearfully and attempting to close the doors of private schools, or bemoaning the gall of wealthy families to opt out of their neighborhood public schools. No, we allow those with the privilege to afford private school to have all the choice their purses and wallets can possibly hold.

But when we start talking about school choice in the context of pulling a kid with no other options out of his neighborhood public school and enrolling her in a charter public school, then school choice becomes something else. It becomes seen by some as a threat to the institution of public school, as an option that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

What, then, would you have a family do if they conclude that their neighborhood school isn’t meeting their needs but can’t afford private school? Because as a parent living two blocks from an elementary school most of the rest of the neighborhood is trying to avoid, it sure doesn’t sit well to be told we don’t have anywhere else to turn.