The Case for Public-School Choice in the Suburbs

By 07/20/2012

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For two decades now, school-choice supporters have advanced two main arguments. First, it’s unfair to trap poor kids in failing schools when better options are available. And second, giving these kids a choice will force the entire public-education system to improve.

Those assertions are still compelling, but they have their limitations. Namely: What about kids who aren’t poor; attend schools that aren’t failing; and live in school districts that, by some measures at least, aren’t in dire need of improvement? I’m talking, of course, about our affluent, leafy suburbs. Do their residents deserve school choice too?

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that many suburban communities are diversifying, with low-income and otherwise disadvantaged children moving into them in greater numbers than ever before. Forget, too, that even our best suburban districts are no great shakes when judged by international comparison. Focus just on the most affluent, high-achieving, homogeneous communities you can picture: Say, Scarsdale (New York) or Bethesda (Maryland) or McLean (Virginia) or most of Marin County (California). Does school choice also have a place in these “super zip codes”?

Many people believe it doesn’t—witness recent debates about suburban charter schools in New Jersey, Tennessee, and the Washington, D.C.-metro area. If people in those bedroom communities want choice, goes the argument, they can purchase it via the private-school market.

Perhaps. But as Andy Rotherham points out, forcing people to “go private” in order to get a customized education for their kids is not a great political strategy for building broad support for the public schools. When school levies come up for a vote, don’t districts want as many taxpayers as possible to have a direct stake in the outcome?

And “customization” is the real issue. Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids. From my own personal experience (Fordham is working on collecting more rigorous, non-anecdotal data—stay tuned for that), affluent parents break down into at least three groups:

Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges. They want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. These folks have no patience for warm-and-fuzzy edu-babble; they want teachers who themselves attended elite schools and can help their charges attain the pinnacle of academic achievement.

Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. Models like Montessori and Waldorf are catnip to these folks; they want teachers who can role-model a kind, soulful, tolerant, mindful way of living in the world—a sort of wisdom that goes beyond mere knowledge. They, too, aspire for their children to attend great colleges—but probably the liberal artsy/crunchy types.

The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school. They want multicultural, multilingual teachers—and aspire for their children to either run, or save, the world. (Yes, these are close relatives of the Tiger Moms—Madres Tigres you could call them.)

Now imagine you’re the superintendent of schools in an affluent community that contains members of all three groups. How are you going to satisfy their differing demands? Elementary school is particularly challenging; does everyone do “Mandarin immersion”? Doubtful. Does everyone do a Waldorf-style “don’t read till your adult teeth come in” program? Double-doubtful. Instead, you provide a standard-issue curriculum, perhaps with a gifted-and-talented option, and maybe Mandarin and Spanish electives at select campuses. The Tiger Parents are relatively satisfied; the Cosmopolitans and Koala Dads, less so.

The challenges continue in middle school and high school, though the smorgasbord nature of the latter makes customization a little more feasible. The Tiger Parents get honors and AP tracks for their kids (plus orchestra, etc.); the Cosmopolitans get bona fide foreign-language programs and maybe IB; the Koala Dads get…well, some sympathetic hippy art teachers, perhaps.

Is this the best we can do? Maybe taxpayers footing the bill, many of them without school-age kids of their own, don’t much care if the district fails to satisfy the whims of every parent; what good is a warm-and-fuzzy Waldorf kid to the economy, anyway? What the public wants is likely more practical: Young people who will go on to make a good living, be good citizens, and not be a permanent drain on the public fisc. If parents want more than that for their kids, they can pay for it themselves! Public education is a public good, not just a private good. If parents want a niche education, they can spend their own damn money.

Understood and in its way understandable. There are limits on what the public should be asked to support financially; schools that don’t help students reach basic proficiency in math and reading, in particular, don’t deserve public subsidies.

But in the leafy suburbs, where children come to Kindergarten with all manner of advantages, schools could teach yoga all day and their students would still probably ace the state tests. There’s more margin for error there—and arguably more room for innovation and experimentation. The stakes just aren’t as high as they are in the urban core, where education is a matter of life or death.

Perhaps the best case for customization and choice in the ‘burbs is that it will result in better schools—those that are more vibrant and effective because they are allowed to be true communities with clear values, places that don’t have to be all things to all people. If one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in the city, why does it work in the suburbs?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Michael Langdon says:

    “…schools that don’t help students reach basic proficiency in math and reading, in particular, don’t deserve public subsidies.”

    How does one measure “help”?

    Michael Langdon

  • elaitch says:

    I live in across the Bay from Marin County in a close-to-super zip code. We have all three types of parent contingencies you describe. The local school district actually manages to offer some degree of choice and balances the needs of the Tigers and Koalas within most of its schools while offering immersion programs at a select few that are open to all (though I admit space is limited). STILL there are many folks who opt for private. Know why? Because: we also have a pretty good sized group of kids of low means and dark skin, and even many of the koala cosmopolitan types don’t really want their kids to be around too many of those kids. And they also don’t really trust what they and the others around them didn’t pay a whole lot of money for. And they also like being able to throw their weight/$ around — private schools are just more responsive to their directly paying clients than any public school of choice can or should be.

  • Matthew Hiebert says:

    This is an entertaining and thought provoking article. I appreciate all of the great work coming out of Fordham and EducationNext.. even if I don’t agree with all of it, it does a lot to raise the level of debate. So, first, thanks. Now..

    Pleasing everyone is a hard game to win, especially if the strategy is to offer anything and everything, and to see if everyone winds up happy. That’s a recipe for a pretty fragmented society. I think there is a need to go back to first principles on this and ask why we do public schooling in the first place. The grand narrative for public education in the states has been operationalized (corrupted) by a decade of NCLB.. The point of education (and all indicators of quality) have been reduced to testing, and in particular, a form of testing which almost everyone seems to agree misses the mark entirely. Now we get leading language like “do their residents deserve choice too?” .. affirming that NCLB was in fact a trojan horse for the charter movement. I’m not sure why public schooling gets painted as one-size-fits-all.. since there is likely more variation between public schools than there is between charter schools, or between private schools. And I’m not sure why charter and private schools have become the de facto proxy for ‘choice’.. There are some excellent models of public systems delivering choice under without the proliferation of charters. In Canada we have English and French schools (constitutionally required), as well as a variety of other publicly funded immersion programs, Catholic and non-Catholic options, and specialized programs, all fully publicly funded. There’s actually a great case study waiting to be written up comparing the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, both in Alberta–In Calgary, choice is dominated by extensive charter and private school offerings, whereas in Edmonton, the public board has offered a similar array of choices under their own umbrella.

    Thanks again,
    Matthew Hiebert

  • jeffreymiller says:

    Nice, Matthew.

    Customization and choice sound positive. And for many folks, they may think America was built on a foundation of allowing everyone to choose everything all the time. Sadly, no. I think this exercise in taking one large entity and allowing it to fragment into smaller and smaller units of cultural affinity was called Balkanization. I don’t think it turned out very well.

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