The False Promise of Choice

One of the charms that ed reformers like to dangle before public school parents is choice.  It's quite the appealing siren call because 1) we're Americans and we love choices (even when they can overwhelm and even paralyze us) and 2) the idea that "wealthy people have choices when it comes to their children's schooling and so should you."

Number two is false on so many levels.  Wealthy people have many more choices period.  Houses, cars, vacations, clothes, colleges, you name it - wealthy people have so many more choices.  What's interesting is that the schools in our district are - almost to a school - full.  Now is that because there are more people in our city? Maybe but the private schools are full as well.  (Imagine if even half those private school parents came back.)

Here's a great essay by Chicago Schools' parent, Julie Vassilatos, The Frightening Implications of School Choice (bold hers, red highlight mine.)
Because "choice" of this kind quietly diminishes the real power of our democratic voice while it upholds the promise of individual consumer preferences above all else.

In this model the local community is not important, and the voice of the local residents is not important. The neighborhood school is not the social epicenter for kids in one community and it is not the locus of parent effort and investment of time.

But in a choice district, parents and kids rarely have the one option they most want--a strong, well resourced, nearby, neighborhood school.

With the choice model, what CPS is doing is investing in severing community. CPS has chosen a school model that fractures and breaks down local bonds among families and within neighborhoods.
Are public schools serving all children well? No. And that has always been the case and we should all be in the movement to change that. But there are a couple of very good reasons why creating a second system of public schools is not the way to move the needle for at-risk students.
Poverty is one.  Try acting like it really doesn't matter is lunacy.  Not providing enough supports for those kids and saying a single good teacher will fundamentally change their lives is also lunacy.  It's an odd thing that people point to charter schools and say, "Look, they have a longer school day." Is that support for kids with crisis/trauma in their lives or just a shelter until they get home?  Except for extremely well-funded charters like Harlem Children's Zone ($23K per kid a year), I hardly ever hear about wrap-around services for charter students.

The biggest one, though, is this - if you are not fully funding public education, how do you know that public education doesn't work?  Sure, you can point at the opportunity gap but guess what?  That gap exists in every single state.  That points to a more systemic reason (see poverty) than what public schools are or are not doing.

In our state, I believe this is the absolute truth.  Fund our public school system to even the NATIONAL average for say, six years and if things are not on an upward trend, then look for other solutions.  (I would also couple this with accountability from districts on how much money is spent centrally and why.)

But we've never done this.  A great article on just this subject is at Salon by Gary M. Sasso, dean of education at Lehigh University.
It is not a coincidence that the so-called decline of the American public school system has coincided with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.  According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the wealth disparity between upper-income and middle-income families is at a record high. 

As the income disparity has increased, so has the educational achievement gap. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, the gap for children from high- and low-income families is at an all-time high—roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.  

Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent–support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?
The Washington Post's Answer Sheet has a guest post by Marion Brady, a veteran educator, called "A Primer on the Damaging Movement to Privatize Public Schools."  It's a great timeline of how corporate interests are working to undermine public education and largely gut and privatize it.

About fighting back:
America’s schools have always struggled—an inevitable consequence, first, of a decision in 1893 to narrow and standardize the high school curriculum and emphasize college prep; second, from a powerful strain of individualism in our national character that eats away support for public institutions; third, from a really sorry system of institutional organization. Politicians, not educators, make education policy, basing it on the simplistic conventional wisdom that educating means “delivering information.

If you want to avoid cranking out the usual amateurish drivel about standardized testing that appears in the op-eds, editorials, and syndicated columns of the mainstream media, ask yourself a few questions about the testing craze: (a) Should life-altering decisions hinge on the scores of commercially produced tests not open to public inspection? (b) How wise is it to only teach what machines can measure? (c) How fair is it to base any part of teacher pay on scores from tests that can’t evaluate complex thought? (d) Are tests that have no “success in life” predictive power worth the damage they’re doing?


Charlie Mas said…
Is there some sort of mass amnesia? Seattle used to be a choice district. People hated it. They were delighted when the District shifted to a neighborhood assignment plan.

Also, there is choice in Seattle Public Schools. There are K-5 and K-8 option schools in every part of the district and two option high schools. There are Montessori programs, language immersion programs, international programs, experiential learning programs, STEM programs, advanced learning programs and more. There are also service schools like Middle College, Interagency, South Lake, and the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center. There's also resources for families who choose to homeschool.
Anonymous said…
you wrote "In our state, I believe this is the absolute truth. Fund our public school system to even the NATIONAL average for say, six years and if things are not on an upward trend, then look for other solutions."

In a way this experiment has already been run. Seattle has been spending between 20-30% more per student than the national average.

Well, Lisa, I have long moved from a Seattle view (the name of this blog notwithstanding) to a state view. So no, the rest of the state is not funded to the national average.
Anonymous said…
Is Seattle, which is funded 20-30% more per student than the national average, working well enough so that it doesn't need to look for other solutions?

If it isn't, then why would raising the rest of WA, (which as a whole is funded about 10% less than the national average) to Seattle funding levels work for the rest of the state?


(I'm actually completely for raising funding in WA as a whole. I just think that raising funding alone is not sufficient.)
Ms206 said…
This is an excellent article! What happens with charter schools and school choice is that an "every person For himself/herself" mentality takes hold. Then what happens is that the parents who care and are "with it" enough work toward Finding a charter school for their child. I cannot blame a parent For doing what she/he believes is best For her/his child. In my district, the School District of Philadelphia, every child who goes to a charter school or a school run by a CMO (Former district schools now run by a charter management org) means that the district loses money. It should not be this way. The kids who lose the most are the well-behAved kids who want to learn but are disrupted in their learning by the out-oF-control kids, many of whom end up or remain in the neighborhood schools For various reasons. And it is so difficult to send these kids to alternative schools or disciplinary schools even when they exhibit chronically aggressive and disruptive behavior. And charter schools are often quick to expel these kids.

If everyone is attending public schools, then everyone (or most everyone) is invested in improving the schools. And we should all be invested in ensuring a quality education for every child!
Patrick said…
Charlie said: Seattle used to be a choice district. People hated it. They were delighted when the District shifted to a neighborhood assignment plan.

Charlie, that's a terrible oversimplification. People hated if they couldn't get in to the school near their house, that's all.
Lynn said…
People hated it if they couldn't get into their school of choice. In many neighborhoods that was not the school nearest their home.
Anonymous said…
In my neighborhood it was not one of the 6 schools near their home. Choice does not work nearly as well when capacity is stretched thin.

Anonymous said…
LisaG, Seattle has spent that extra money chasing ed-reform fads and adding layers of management. I agree that also has to change to for improvement to occur.

I am pretty sick of the argument that extra money doesn't work. Have we tried it? Where did the money come from? What strings were attached to that money? How was it actually spent?

Chris S.
Jan said…
Actually, Charlie -- SOME of us lamented the change from the choice system to the neighborhood assignment system -- fearing exactly the bad things that have happened to "choice" and school autonomy (but I agree with you -- it was sort of lonely in "choice" land.) More to the point, though, what the District sold was a version of choice -- we were told that the District was committed to retaining option schools. We were also promised that a percentage of each high school would be reserve for "choice" students -- so that all students would still have a chance to go to a non-neighborhood school that better fit their needs and interests.

In the general conflagration that attended the poor roll out of the Neighborhood assignment scheme, coupled with the destructive policies of the then-superintendent (who was busy creating as much Broad-style drama and conflict as she could while she still had a rubber stamp board), the "choice" promises met an early and dismaying demise.

So while some of us hated the new assignment plan, many thought that they were making palatable trades to lessen the inequality of hundreds of families who had no neighborhood options at all.

Perhaps we were fools to believe the District (though I think they would have gone ahead anyway -- because that board was not known for its exquisite attention to public sentiment. But on the whole, the problem is that the District reneged -- either through bungling incompetence (they were unable to roll out the plan as promised because it was a flawed plan, executed by flawed management) or willful indifference (they knew all along it wouldn't work -- but didn't care) -- or a combination of both. When I talk "District" here -- I aim only at the highest levels. I am well aware that many District employees worked long and hard to try to implement the new assignment plan, and do not fault them for what their superiors did or did not do.
"I just think that raising funding alone is not sufficient."

Okay, if there is enough money, how would you spend it differently? I ask legislators and others all the time and rarely do I get an answer within the current system. I get that many believe that administrative costs are too high; if that's the case, pass a bill restricting it. But give me some concrete examples.

seattle citizen said…
LisaG, do you have data to support your claim that Seattle funds 20-30% more than national average?
n said…
"Averages" are not particular good indicators of funding. That's a slippery-slope in determining if Washington schools are really well-funded or not.
Gads said…
I'm challenging LisaG to back her talk with documentation, data and analysis.
Anonymous said…
Seattle Citizen thank you for asking for the data. It turns out I was doing my math wrong. Seattle spends 15-20% more than the national average. has all kinds of interesting data. Tables H9 - H12 are spending per student.

Natl average in 2011-2012 is $10,838; in 2012-2013 it is $10,938.
WA average for the same years is $9672 (89.2%) and $9908 (90.6%).

Seattle average in 2012-2013 $12,587 (115% of natl average, 127% of WA average)

Seattle average in 2011-2012 $12,927 (119% of natl average, 133% of WA average)

2007-2008 natl average $9963, WA average $9304

Seattle average in 2007-2008 $12,035 (121% of natl average, 129% of WA average)

So 15-20% more than the national average is a better number. Seattle spends 20-30% more than WA as a whole.

Anonymous said…
Melissa asked how I would spend the money differently.

I haven't been here long enough to really understand how SPS spends its money. I come from a school district (in California) which is about 40% FRPL and 45% ELL and was spending less than $7000 per student in 2013-2014. SPS levels of spending would mean all kinds of additional amenities for that district

I would set as priorities for SPS to lower its dropout rate, increase the number of students who have taken the classes necessary to be prepared for college, decrease the number of students who are far below basic on standardized testing. (I'm not sure what the WA requirements are for standardized testing. CA, possibly because it spends less per student, seems to have a lot less testing than in Seattle. No kindergartners get tested for one thing.)

One thing that I think might help achieve those three goals would be a mentor program for high school students, so that there is a single person that knows how a student is doing in all classes and can keep that student on track. Ideally, the mentor would be a regular teacher (i.e. teaches an academic subject) that taught a mentor class once a week.

Another thing that would help is a culture of high expectations. Yes, poverty has a big impact. But recognizing that students start from different places and have more challenges is different than saying "We can't do anything for these kids. They don't even have books at home." (actual teacher quote from another school district)

Another action I think would help is collaboration between schools. For example, find out in which schools students eligible for FRPL are doing better than in other schools. What are those schools doing differently? Can other schools adopt their methods?

Changes in instructional approach that I would propose to help achieve the above three goals are standards based grading and more group work.


Gads said…
Geesh, Lisa G, No one can say that you've not been looking for information. No where does it say that students were funded at $12K per year.

As well, during the Great Recession the district closed a funding gap of $125M. Funding was not consistent and drastically reduced. The state provided some relief last year.
Anonymous said…
Right Lisa. You're really on top of it. Your ideas? More tests, standards based grades, and "advisory". We have done all that, and thankfully are swinging back the other way.

Anonymous said…
Reader said "Your ideas? More tests"

I never said "more tests". I meant to say fewer tests, but I guess I only implied it with "No kindergartners get tested for one thing." I think one standardized test a year is plenty. That would be fewer tests than Seattle has right now, wouldn't it?

But I also think if you have a test, then it should mean something. It should be showing you how well your students are doing in a subject that you think is important. And therefore the results should be disaggregated and examined.

I'm guessing that what I called mentors, you call "advisory". Could you explain what that is in SPS and why it didn't work? Also, how did standards based grading not work? And does "swinging back the other way" mean that grading is now based on attendance and good penmanship, or something else?

I didn't see in Lisa's suggestions anything I would largely disagree with. Mentors? Yes but I'd rather see counselors first.

I'm not sure the expectations are that low but it's a line I hear often. I more often hear teachers despair over moving the needle with few supports for students with challenges.

I would agree with looking at who IS moving the needle and why. Of course, if you have a school like South Shore which gets $1M more a year than any other school with a large F/RL population, you'd hope they'd do better (and they do relative to other schools.)

I will say that Lisa may be a parent but may also represent some other interest. I'm glad others have time to answer all her questions; I don't.
Anonymous said…
Melissa wrote "I will say that Lisa may be a parent but may also represent some other interest."

I am a parent who has been actively involved in other traditional public school districts. I came across this blog while trying to figure out what made charter schools unconstitutional in WA (now I understand about common schools) because the newspapers didn't really explain anything. I stuck around because I'm interested in figuring out what schools might be a good match for my kids.

As to representing some other interest: I don't work in the education industry, public or private, although my mother is a retired (union) school librarian. I'm not suggesting people vote for or against any candidates or any initiatives. I have opinions, and I am aware that they don't always match up with the opinions of Melissa and Charlie, but I am grateful that they maintain this blog to supply information about the Seattle schools (and the rest of WA schools). I would be happy to represent the interests of parents who would like their children to learn to do things rather than just absorb facts, but I think other parent wouldn't want me to represent them because of my somewhat prickly science/engineering oriented communication skills.


Anonymous said…
LisaG, you want us to spend less, but at the same time lower the dropout rate, increase college readiness, decrease the number of students who are far below basic on standardized testing, implement a much more intensive mentor/advisory program for high school students, do more evaluation to figure out what's working where and why, and have schools spend more time collaborating across sites.

Cool. So what should we cut do get us down to what you consider reasonable spending, and then what additional cuts should we make to pay for these new elements?


And standards based grading and more group work? Ugh. Not a fan of either.
Anonymous said…
HF said "LisaG, you want us to spend less,"

But I never said that. I said "I'm actually completely for raising funding in WA as a whole."

Anonymous said…
Gads @11:26 said "No where does it say that students were funded at $12K per year."

You're right. That number is not there. You need to divide the total spending by the number of enrolled students.

Here it has been done for the largest 1000 school districts in the U.S. for 2011-2012's_largest_school_districts

They show $12,670 for SPS in 2011-2012. From the budgets on SPS website, I calculated $12,927 for 2011-2012 but I used the proposed budget and estimated enrollment figures that were used for creating the budget, so one of those estimates must have changed a little.

Why is it so hard for you to believe that SPS spends $12,000 per student?


Just Saying said…
It isn't uncommon for ed. reform groups to infiltrate comment sections.
Just Saying said…
I don't know where LisaG gets so much time to study these issues. I don't read LisaG's entire comment thread; I don't have that much time.

I don't know where LisaG is going. I don't care that Seattle spends $12K per student. Seattle students outperform the state.

LisaG first came to this blog and looked naïve. Interesting she has so much information.
Charlie Mas said…
I don't invest much meaning in average spending per student. It is strongly skewed by expenditures on students with disabilities. I think the more meaningful measure is the funding for students before any adjustments for FRL, ELL, or IEP.
Maureen said…
Sorry, I haven't followed the links (though I have looked at similar data in the past.) Does it indicate corresponding FRL/ELL/and Special Ed percentages? My understanding is that Sped % etc. are higher in urban areas like Seattle so, one would hope, at least, that education expenditure should be higher as well (especially if funds include Federal money.) In any event, these figures will vary nationally (higher ELL in CA for example, I would think?) so per student expenditure should be corrected for that. There is also the issue of cost of living (so salaries and maintenance/property costs.)

It might be more appropriate to compare per student expenditures among urban areas?

Another thing I would like to see is actual classroom level expenditure (removing the funds spent on administration and things like transportation) so we can see where the extra money is currently being spent. (Many of us have long complained that too much SPS funding goes to admin and to special projects.) Unfortunately, it seems like most of the reports that try to do this are created by organizations that have some specific agenda.

I appreciate LisaG's willingness to engage, and do some research for all of us.
Maureen said…
OMG, JustSaying don't complain that LisaG is spending time engaging in education! For some of us it is a major hobby/avocation! Don't ask me how much time my husband spends brewing beer!
Anonymous said…
Maureen said "My understanding is that Sped % etc. are higher in urban areas like Seattle"

I'd never really though about this before. Table 2 (about page 16) of shows that urban, suburban, and rural populations have about the same percentage of students with IEPs (about 11.6%) and towns have 12.5%

Something interesting in that same table is that "schools that did not participate in free or reduced price lunch program" (there are 2960 schools in that category) have higher percentages of students with IEPs at 12.9% compared with schools that had varying percentages of students qualified for FRPL, ranged from 11.1% to 12.1%. I wonder what makes a school decide not to participate.

I think I have extra time for reading about education because I don't watch TV. But since finding this blog, my knitting output has dropped off dramatically.

seattle citizen said…
LisaG, a cursory glance through the list of 1000 schools seems to show that (generally) the more urban or more wealthy a district the more they spend. A wealthy district, obviously, can and likely will spend more. I posit that urban districts spend more because they aren't as homogeneous as rural districts and, likely, have higher costs in a variety of areas.
Anonymous said…
seattle citizen said "seems to show that (generally) the more urban or more wealthy a district the more they spend."

If "more urban" means larger population, I don't think the data shows that. The four largest school districts are all in big cities but the amount per student they spend ranges from $9729 to $25,061.

School districts get most of their money from local, state, and federal government. The NEA data (tables in the F section) shows that states vary a lot in the percentages from local and state governments. CA and WA both have relatively high state contributions, 56.9% and 59.9% compared to national average of 46.2%. This puts CA and WA in 12th and 9th place. Egalitarian VT is in 1st with 87.8% of school funding coming from state government.

Urban districts do have higher percentage of students who eligible for FRPL and students who are ELL which increases the federal funding they receive.

Jet City mom said…
Had Seattle ever been able to show that the money they recieve for students covered under IDEA actually goes toward implementing meaningful IEPs?
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