Parental Choice, Magical Thinking, and the Paralysis of Indirect Solutions

Parental choice #1: Seeking a school for their white children so they will not have to attend classes with black or brown children.

Parental choice #2: Seeking a school where their wealthy children will not have to attend classes with poor children.

Parental choice #3: Seeking a school where children will be taught Intelligent Design, but not evolutionary biology.

Parental choice #4: Not allowing their children to be vaccinated.

Parental choice #5: Smoking in the house and car while children are present.

I could continue for quite some time with the hypotheticals, but let’s turn to what we know about parental choice and education.

A 2007 study by a pro-school choice organization in Wisconsin reached the following conclusions:

Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.

This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.

More recently, in School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture, Jan Resseger explains:

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

In the hypothetical and real contexts above, then, I am struck by Jack Markell’s assertion: School Choice Works, Privatization Won’t—notably after rejecting vouchers, his proposal: “That means using parent choice among traditional, charter, and magnet schools to foster innovative instruction, and hold public schools accountable for giving students the best opportunities possible.” [1]

I think we must acknowledge the final point—”best opportunities possible”—while adding “all” before “students” above; however, we cannot allow the essential magical thinking about choice and idealistic framing of parental choice to go unchallenged.

Let me offer next a much broader context.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “the treatment of poverty nationally” by arguing:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Choice, market forces, the Invisible Hand—these are always indirect methods, and in many cases, magical thinking. The market might accomplish goals that benefit a people, and if so, that process is slow, characterized by fits and starts, and entirely dependent on the consumers—their wants, needs, and abilities to exercise choice.

So let’s return to parental choice #4 above.

What happens to public health if vaccinations are left to the choice of parents, the market?

In other words, the sloppy and chaotic nature of the market to address the quality of cable TV or Internet providers seems something we can tolerate.

But public health?

And this question, I think, is the same for public education.

Promoting the indirect impact of parental choice to accomplish the clear and obvious responsibilities that a public institution not only can but also must fulfill [2] is a tragic failure of a people, an ethical failure.

If we genuinely as a people viewed any child as everyone’s child, we could in the course of public funding and public schooling create the sort of educational opportunities that every child deserves, but currently only the elite are guaranteed because of the dynamics of choice trumping the assurances of the Commons and the stratifying policies driving traditional schooling [3].

And thus Markell’s final bi-partisan wink-wink-nod-nod to Jeb Bush to assert “policymakers should be ‘more daring’ when it comes to education policy” rings hollow since political leaders embracing choice are in fact shirking their responsibility and obligation to act in the service of all people.

[1] Of course, there is always the nasty implication among choice/market advocates and the “no excuses” crowd that teachers and children are just not trying hard enough. And as I detail above, those exact people are supporting letting the market “work” instead of them actually working. So once again, I invoke: “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel.

[2] See note above, ironically, exposed by parental choice and the market: Just what are the characteristics of the elite private schools wealthy parents choose for their children—the exact political leaders who say class size doesn’t matter but their children’s school has 155 teachers for 1150 students (a 1:7.4 ratio)? And it is here that we have the “best opportunities possible” before us while political leaders remain paralyzed, unwilling to guarantee for “other people’s children” what they cede to the market since, of course, the market favors them.

[3] And let’s ponder how the system benefits the wealthy: Would the SAT and all standardized tests be so entrenched in the U.S. educational system if their gatekeeping effects denied wealthy children grade promotion, graduation, and college entrance? Hint: No.

7 comments

  1. Margaret Benson

    The complicated picture of Child Care is a good example of how the market does not promote quality. We have left child care to the private sector. Here the problem is that parents can only afford so much, and so the great majority of child care programs, even the chain programs which ought to benefit from economies of scale, are under funded. The result, shown in study after study, is child care that is at best mediocre. In addition, parents do not know how to judge quality well, and so select programs that are affordable, close to home or to work, or offer other things that help make life more manageable for the parent. Research notes that child care is better where state regulations are more demanding, where public funding is available, or where an employer has on-site child care (and therefore subsidizes some of the costs of running a program). Seeing the parallels in your arguments about parental choice in education, and parental choice in child care, my fear is that parental choice might lead us to have more schools that offer a poorer experience, rather than the opposite.

  2. jeffreymhartman

    Thank you for this thorough and thought-provoking piece.

    An inherent assumption in granting greater control to parents is these parents can be trusted to make sound educational decisions for children. This might assume too much. In matters ranging from test participation to curricular design, parents across the nation want more say in their children’s education. Simultaneously, parent-led movements regarding childcare issues such as vaccinations and discrimination claims show considerable variation in reasoning skills. I wrote about this very phenomenon on my blog yesterday:

    http://jeffreymhartman.com/2015/04/22/from-inclusion-to-opting-out-parents-getting-their-way/

  3. Bridget

    The problem rarely discussed is that parent choice requires information. Informed parent choice requires parents to have reliable and trustworthy information on which to base those choices. As the New Orleans study shows, some parents must base their choices on personal preferences and family needs that may not place a high value on the school performance scores that are generated by standardized tests. Especially in New Orleans where families in poverty are given a false “choice” of an F school or different F school, while middle class families have a different choice; the choice of “A” schools or private schools. The false narrative of choice continues. Is there really a choice when your child is not allowed into the school you choose? That is the reality of the New Orleans ” miracle”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s