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Right in the center

School Choice, Or Lack Thereof

Posted by kostub on May 17, 2010

Public schools were designed as the great equalizers of our society
– the place where all children could have access to educational
opportunities to make something of themselves in adulthood.
– Janet Napolitano

We’ve been searching for a pre-school for my daughter and in that process I started to discover more about how the school system works in the US. And the more I learn about it, the stranger I find the system here. Now, if this system actually had better outcomes then I would have tried to make myself like it. But given that the US education system is considerably inferior to the rest of the education systems in the world, I find it surprising that most Americans like and support this system.

Especially given that in India, where I did my schooling , the education system is vastly differently. There are three kinds of schools in India – publicly funded, semi-private (publicly funded but privately run) and private. While this sounds similar to the US public, charter & private schools on the surface, the demographics that these schools cater to are vastly different. Public schools in India are targetted towards poor & low income families. These are for people who would not normally send their children to school and given the vast illiterate population in India these are crucial for educating the masses. But most people (upper & middle class city dwellers) would not send their children to these schools, and the cities are dominated by people educated in private schools. In contrast, most American students are a product of the public school system.

The big differentiating factor is school choice. School choice is extremely important in India. My parents tried really hard to make sure I get into one of the top schools in the city. And it makes a huge difference – most successful people would come from the top few schools in their city. And so while some of your neighbours’ kids may go to the local neigbourhood schools, they are just not likely to be as successful. Schools compete for the attention of parents – regularly advertising their results and test scores. That’s the one thing that I find sorely lacking in the education system in the US. There is complete lack of competition between schools and a choice for parents. While private schools do offer you the choice, they are almost guaranteed to break the bank unless you decide to have only one child or are a C-level executive of a large corporation.

And while I do not oppose the use of public funds for education, the choice in the public education system is very very limited. You are forced to send your kids to the one public school which serves your area. And while some school districts have choice schools which is good, they are still limited by school district. I just cannot send my children to the best public school in the neighbouring district even if it is just a 10 minute drive for me. The only option would be to pick up and move to a location which is served by a better school, even if it may be just a mile away. That in my opinion is absurd. And it has unintended consequences. House prices are strongly correlated to the school district. Areas with better public schools are just more expensive to buy houses in and affluent areas tend to have better schools. This completely goes against the philosophy that public schools started out with – to provide a good education for all irrespective of your race or financial status. Low income families, most of whom cannot afford to live in neighborhoods with good schools, are forced to send their kids to failing schools and cannot provide their kids with a good education. So this system just ends up exacerbating the issue it is trying to solve and in the process provide a worse education for all.

Moreover laws like No Child Left Behind, make matters worse. Since public funding is controlled by metrics such as standardized test scores, it is in the school’s best interest to inflate grades and dumbing down the curriculum to the lowest common denominator to make them look better on the NCLB scale. The standardization of tests lead to no differentiation of students as every one is treated with the same metric in mind.  Everyone has different aptitudes and they need a different focus in their education. Measuring everyone on the same yardstick does not provide the individuals the right areas of education they need in order for them to be successful in life.

Instead of ad hoc metrics determining the funding of schools, the system should let parents & students determine the funding based on their satisfaction with the school. Parents can do this by choosing what school their children go to. This is the cornerstone of the School Choice movement. Unfortunately this idea has not gained much political traction in the country. There is still a strong opposition to school choice from the liberals and the teachers unions who argue that it will cause decrease in funding for public schools while not improving the education standards!

While the best way to implement school choice (through vouchers, open enrollment, charter schools etc.) may still be open to debate, there is no doubt that empowering parents to make school decisions about their children will make the whole education system better. And though education does not seem to be as pressing as other issues like healthcare on people’s minds, building generations of poorly educated people is not good for the country’s health in the long run.

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2 Responses to “School Choice, Or Lack Thereof”

  1. Nagaja said

    Oh, I don’t know. I think you’re glorifying the Indian system just a tad. Most children in India can’t afford the good schools unless they have parents with crores of Rupees to squander on a “deposit” or worse yet, connections with which appropriate strings can be pulled. And some school districts here will let you send your kid to a different school through specific programs/waitlists – as long as you’re willing to drop them off and pick them up and not rely on the bus route. Or you could just shell out for private education and spend about the same as you would in India these days.

  2. Yana said

    This is interesting — I come from the eastern european school system, and at least of the time, it was very similar to what you describe — loads of competition. The competition there wasn’t among schools — it was among teachers and students to get to the schools with good reputation. Money does play a role in preparation but you can argue that money brings advantage to a child’s life from day one. It is not, however, a gap that a committed family and a bright child can’t overcome.

    It is ironic that the US system, which is touted to be “dog-eat-dog” capitalism in terms of economics, is so concerned with keeping everyone “equal”. I live in MA now where there are whole school districts where children simply don’t speak English and are expected to learn high school level math in that language. Do they hold them back? Do they route them through remedial language school? No…they adjust the general lesson plan to fit the weakest link.

    IMO they should stick with the pubilc school model (w/ possibly vouchers) for K-5 and then enter “magnet school”/college model — you go to whatever school you test into. Believing every kid is equally good at everything is just silly. Lowering expectations continuously for fear of offending someone is even sillier

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