An Open Letter: To School Choice, From a Teacher

Dear School Choice,

How did our relationship get so complex? Back in college, things were so black and white: you were a shady character I was supposed to avoid (what with those rumors about causing the demise of public education and whatnot).

But then I graduated during the recession and the only gig I could find was at…a charter school. Actually 2 charter schools–the first, where I worked as a TA, was rife with many the problems my professors described. But the second was unique in that it provided the International Baccalaureate program, introducing me to inquiry, student-driven action, and global citizenship.

(see “I’m Finally Using the PYP Key Concepts!“)

Over the years, I witnessed some of your problems I’d been warned about like high teacher turn-over. But mostly, I was grateful to have learned so much about how to help students take ownership for their learning, and to have been given lots of leeway to try new things as a teacher.

(see “When DIY PD Goes Terribly Wrong–Or Does It?“)

So when it came time to enroll our oldest, you and I were in a much more flexible place than when we first met. But I still opted to go with our neighborhood school, which is part of the district, committed to the idea of “lifting where we stand” (and just plain wanting our child to be able to walk or bike to school). In that commitment, I thought I could go back to brushing you off.

But I met too many people that seemed to have compelling reasons to depend on you:

  • traveling with the family so often that homeschooling (worldschooling) made sense
  • transferring to a different school within the district that offered a language program
  • having a child with such severe anxiety that online homeschooling became an important alternative
  • searching out a school with a focus on autism to meet a child’s needs
  • encountering concerns at the local school in which the child’s and/or parents’ voices are regularly dismissed (and choosing another school where the opposite is the case)–especially when severe bullying has been involved

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve learned you’re complicated. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and tell parents to shun you. But it’s a lot harder when you hear exactly how their children are struggling, and tell them to ignore available alternatives that might, in fact, be a better fit. For those parents, not taking you up on your offer almost feels like bad parenting.

All that said, I still do maintain some reservations that keep me from inviting you to our next dinner party:

  • There is no perfect school: just because an alternative is available does not guarantee that that will solve all problems.
  • Parents who have the most socioeconomic advantages tend to be the ones most involved in school choice, which means it can contribute to socioeconomic divides & even modern segregation.
  • There is power in a community uniting to find out how they can improve their local school (rather than simply abandoning it).

I hope you don’t take my concerns personally. I do know that sometimes, you’re more focused on bringing something new to the table (like a special program for autism or International Baccalaureate), and not just assuming you’re going to do the same thing as districts but better. And seeing the good you’ve been able to accomplish for families that need alternatives has helped me judge you less.

So, though I expect our relationship will continue to be uncertain, I’m glad we seem to understand each other a bit more. Thank you for the opportunities you’ve given me, and I hope to see more conversations moving forward on how to best serve children and communities.

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