Be Careful When You Say “Choice”

I. Me and Choice

“Small, self-governing schools of choice” was my mantra for nearly 40 years—starting in 1973 when my colleagues and I started Central Park East (K-6) in East Harlem’s District 4. This first CPE school was followed by two sister schools in the same district. Within a decade, District 4 had transformed itself. It still had 21 neighborhood schools, but now there were nearly 21 schools of choice, all within approximately one square mile. These schools were overseen by a District 4 elected local school board. Then in 1985 came Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), also located in District 4, but part of a flourishing network of citywide “alternative” high schools led by Stephen Phillips.

We were on a roll, reinventing public education in dozens of district schools in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and others—with support as time went on from the Annenberg Foundation. CPE and CPESS were also among a half dozen similarly adventurous schools who joined the late Ted Sizer in creating the Coalition of Essential Schools. Within half a dozen years, CES attracted the allegiance of over a thousand schools nationwide. We soon concluded that this mantra—small, self-governing schools of choice—aligned well with the ten principles set forth by Sizer. In the mid-90s I was one of several colleagues who jumped on an idea proposed by the Boston teacher’s union and left New York City for the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. These schools—called Pilots—remained in the system and in the union, under a contract that offered maximal autonomy. From an original few, the Pilot Network grew to include over thirty small, successful endeavors. Of course, in Boston, controlled choice had been the outcome of a long battle for desegregation.

We woke up at the end of the 1990s to discover that “self-governance” and “choice” had been redefined. The marketplace was the answer to governance, and unfettered “private” choice was now said to be the fairest way—for rich or poor. It reminded me of Anatole France’s wise and oft-quoted saying: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

Even the rationale for smallness had changed. We had thought of it as an asset in building a strong democratic community, allowing for both representative and direct democracy. Sometimes we have to make choices between virtues. When and where one favors choice may depend on what you hold dearest and what you fear most. My fears changed between 1973 and 2013.

The same is true for size and scale. Small schools make playing with democracy a viable idea. But small schools can also be used to more closely control and monitor teachers. It once again depends upon where we want to go—otherwise any road will take you there, as the Scarecrow pointed out to Dorothy.

I’m most worried about the future of our democracy—a concept that has had very few longstanding successes in human history. Only in the past half century have we committed ourselves to a fully inclusive democracy, even if we have not quite achieved it. Maybe that’s what has made it more frightening to some. After all, democracy is not a “natural” form of government—but it’s the only way I think we can promote both equality and individuality, and both freedom and solidarity. I consider all four of these to be “natural” ends, and democracy the critical means. But there’s a constant tension between the four big ideas, and we have tilted in different directions over our history. The choice: we can tell the dissidents, “go back where you came from,” or we can figure out how we can live together. We can encourage each separate “identity” group to create their own ghetto, or we can jointly figure out how we can keep our identity and work together. Schools are perhaps the one and only, if not ideal, place to tackle the essential tensions that hold democracy together.


II. So what’s the bottom line?

All children should have a right to attend a neighborhood school, close to them, as was the case in District 4, while also being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available. In the latter case a lottery-like system should be the responsibility of the local elected school board. In New York City these days, almost none of the above is true anymore. But District 4 proved it could be otherwise—while remaining a public school. (See The Nation, March 4, 1991, “Choice Can Save Public Education.”)

All children should have a right to attend a school where everyone’s voice is taken seriously. Since there are no neutral measures of success, the likelihood is that in the absence of a democratic governing system the marketplace will divide us by class and race. Some voices will thereby count a lot more than others. Competing for the “best” students, the “best” scores, with the “best” PR while making the most profits is not self-governance. In the process of building our fragile democracy we need to make it harder, not easier, to make decisions based on the lowest common denominator—be it our own children’s competitive advantage, or whether the school makes a profit. Of course, I worry about my own children, but finding solutions that are good for my own and for others is what democratic habits of heart and mind make easier to do.

This is easier to accomplish if all the constituents are part of the governing body, and all—parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students—have a stake in each other’s opinions and votes. Playing with how to do this from the perspective of all the different constituents is itself an amazing learning experience. It was exciting to actually have to reconsider the same issues that confronted our Founding Fathers, and to make amendments when our original ideas failed us.

The impact of inequalities of wealth and status. It’s important to realize that inequality comes at a price. One price is in our international test scores. We probably all agree that children who happened to be born to families with fewer advantages to pass on, will pass fewer on; just as others pass on each and every advantage they happen to possess: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose,” as Billie Holiday noted in song. Even the way we define “best” is a reflection of who is best positioned to do the defining. (See Lani Guiner and Susan Sturm, Who’s Qualified?, 2001) Finding ways to protect ourselves from these “naturally” occurring phenomena is important. Privatization—vouchers or charters—makes it harder, not easier, to level the playing field. It locks us even further into our separate compartments. But equally dangerous is pretending that schools alone can solve the inequity of inequality.

All children benefit from environments where empathy and solidarity seem natural and right. Democracy is not easy to describe or define, but we know it thrives best when empathy and solidarity are part of daily practice. Pluralism makes both harder. The habits that make these possible are not guaranteed by our shared genetic history. They need to be learned. We need time to practice, practice, practice the habits a democracy needs. Fewer than ever are the schools in which this kind of social and intellectual work goes on—and where we all must hear each other out. In fact, too many schools today actually encourage a narrow focus on one’s own child’s immediate competitive self-interests. Seeing everyone else as a competitor for limited status and money is, we know, not the best of motives for high quality work, nor for human solidarity.


III. When all is said and done.

In short, democracy is the form of accountability we’ve chosen—invented as a way to hold the scoundrels to account. If we are afraid to use democracy to hold our educational system accountable, why would we imagine it’s more suited to holding any other institutions to account? Democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.

The old English “public” schools served to train England’s ruling class to protect the greater good of the nation. How does that translate when we claim that all adults are members of the ruling class? How can we imagine our children will understand and value this preposterous idea if they never experience it? What does it mean for our future if we see democracy as too dangerous to let ordinary citizens in on it, above all in making decisions about matters closest to them?

I’m biased. My life and the lives of the young people I taught have been immeasurably improved by the years we spent with each other across lines of race, class, abilities, and talents. Spending my time in a community that was respected and expected to make decisions together, a community where we could also see the impact of our decisions and change course when we chose to. It was not ideal, but it was not utopian either.

If schooling is only a way to individually “get ahead” of others—a sentiment I have certainly at times shared—it is hard to see why the general public should be stakeholders. There will always be a top 10% and a bottom 10% and 50% will always be the norm. It’s precisely because schools in a democracy promise to provide a “public good” on behalf of the 100%. A promise they may never fulfill to everyone’s approval. That’s what universal public education aspires to be, which even the best of the private independent schools I know do not and cannot aspire to. Schools, like neighborhoods and countries, are not merely private “choices.” Sometimes they are not that at all—but just the one place a family found to settle in. At their best, choices also call upon the values that communities are vigorously prepared to cherish and defend.


IV. Why all this fuss?

I’ll admit, I view this whole educational “crisis” as a way to turn our attention away from the other crises we face. Why are we prepared to be tougher on school personnel, for example, than we are on hedge fund or big bank managers. As my mother used to say, watch out when someone declares there’s a crisis. They are probably trying to sell you something that with more thought you’d not buy! The fuss is worth it if it helps us look deeper and acknowledge the existence of some very deep-seated doubt about the viability of the democratic idea.

Yes, schools have been and are unequal, badly segregated by race and class. Yes, they are often disrespectful places for children, families and teachers. Yes, rich and poor alike find schools more boring than challenging. Few classrooms deal respectfully with important intellectual or moral issues. Yes. We need reform. This was the message of Ted Sizer’s popular Horace’s Compromise (1984)—a riveting description of his visits to secondary schools throughout the nation—public and private. The market place won’t solve this any better than it has solved our “housing crisis.” These are not marketplace issues, but moral issues. In traditional terms publicly operated schools are doing better than market place housing at leveling the field. Given the high rate of poverty in America compared to our competitors, even our standardized test scores are right up there with the rest. Ditto the number of years our students spend in school or the number of actual “instructional” hours devoted to tested subjects per day. We “out perform” on both counts.


V. What next?

We need to remind ourselves that between the early 70s and the late 90s we witnessed an unprecedented “bottom up” reform movement. Never were there more individual entrepreneurs struggling to make their ideas viable, with relatively little outside support. Some of that still exists, even if in a distorted form, in the small-scale mom-and-pop charters. We needs to join together in plotting next steps.

What the rich want for their children is, we must remind ourselves, largely what all children have a right to. John Dewey had that right. But it’s interesting that what the rich do not care about when choosing schools are the length of the day or school year. There are two things they do look for: small class sizes and the “extras”— music, art, travel, debate, hobbies, and sports. There is, alas, an unspoken third thing the rich look for: who their kids will be mixing with. We cannot forget that.

The latest school reforms are, in the name of equity, once again offering something different to the rich and poor. There is reason behind such madness, but it’s not a strategy aimed at improving democracy. Its potentially worse than a huge distraction. It’s leading us down a dangerous road that we cannot afford to take. I hope we don’t squander this invented crisis by assuming that we all are equally concerned about sleeping under the bridge, or begging on the street. We cannot just let the market place take its course. We have an obligation to put our hand on the steering wheel, directing the future, not just passively accepting it—if we want badly enough for everyone to sleep safely in their own bed. 

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • School Choice: Whether, Why, How? by Kevin Currie-Knight

    Markets provide many of the goods and services we typically need in raising children. Yet education has long been an enormous exception to the rule. Why should that be? Kevin Currie-Knight examines some of the reasons commonly used to justify this exception. He finds them either insufficient or doubtful, and he recommends some principles that might drive a freer market in education.

Response Essays

  • Crafting Educational Markets: Some Evidence from Washington, D.C. by Conor P. Williams

    Conor P. Williams argues that some places already have significantly market-based education systems, perhaps to a degree that Kevin Currie-Knight would find difficult to admit. He uses Washington, D.C.’s public schools as an example of what limited, well-managed market pressures can do, and he welcomes some (though not all) of the changes the market has wrought. He finds that the debate should not be characterized as one of markets versus non-markets, but of exactly where and how market pressures should be brought to bear.

  • A Public Problem, A Private Solution by Marcus A. Winters

    Marcus A. Winters finds a genuine government role in education, albeit a limited one. He suggests that public funding should continue, but that the provision of services is often best handled in the private sector. The evidence on school choice programs shows no harm to the existing public school system, he finds, and while charter schools do not always or everywhere do better than public schools, some of them have. They should be allowed to develop further so that we can study them in detail and realize their full potential.

The Conversation