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School choice isn't a miracle, it's an opportunity
Last week marked the anniversary of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s first year on the job. Given her steadfast support for school choice and the impassioned opposition of her critics, it’s little surprise that her tenure has seen the school choice debate take on new urgency, rife with heated claims about the evidence regarding outcomes, costs and much else. Amidst these energetic debates, though, I fear the larger promise of school choice can be too easily lost.
Here’s the grand irony: While choice advocates tend to talk mechanistically about the results of “randomized control trials” or the failures of “bureaucratic monopolies,” the real promise of school choice is its humane, empowering and organic vision of educational improvement. Now this will sound odd to those who routinely hear school choice pilloried as part of a “neoliberal corporatist” conspiracy. But bear with me for a moment.
You see, it’s vital to note that school choice is not an intervention. It’s not a pill you take. It’s more a chance to reach into the medicine cabinet and grab a bottle. Whether that will help depends on what’s in that cabinet.
If we’re being honest, the promise of school choice is not that, tomorrow, schools will magically be “better.” The promise is that, over the long haul, things like charter schooling, voucher programs and educational savings accounts will create room for individuals to innovate, problem-solve and build. They can empower educators and families to create and choose better schools.
The logic becomes easier to grasp if you spend much time talking school improvement with principals or district leaders. Conversations are peppered with phrases like, “I’d like to do this but the contract requires…” or “I’d like to pay them more but HR says…” and “I’d love to move those dollars but we’re not allowed.” Educators wrestle with inherited rules, regulations and contract provisions that may no longer make sense but which can be extraordinarily difficult to change. Even when formally allowed to act, school and system leaders are hamstrung by ingrained customs and culture.
Few older organizations, in any sector, are good at managing change. Organizations grow rigid with time, which makes it difficult to take advantage of new technology or address changing needs. When we tell educators that the only path to reimagining schools or schooling is to “fix” aged systems or schools, we can put them in a nearly impossible position.
It’s hard for established organizations to fundamentally rethink their work, marshal the will to implement sweeping change, or convince employees to embrace it. An organization’s culture and DNA reflect certain assumptions about pay levels, work hours, expectations, job descriptions, offices, hiring and the rest. This makes it really difficult to say, “Guess what, everyone? We’re starting from scratch! We’re totally changing what you do, how you’re paid and who’s in charge of your team.”
It’s not like school districts never change. They change all the time. But the changes tend to be cosmetic and inch-deep, precisely because bigger changes create discomfort and require painful modifications to existing rules, contracts and routines. This can make it prohibitive to launch a new school or reconfigure an old one. Before they can even get started, educators seeking transformative change have to exhaust themselves just battling for permission to act. The result: People tinker, convince themselves their tinkering is more significant than it is, and hope that’ll do the trick.
School choice makes it far easier to start new schools, which can settle on a clear and coherent purpose from the outset. New schools can adopt the kinds of instructional programs, calendars and staffing models they want without having to unwind what’s already there or negotiate with skeptical stakeholders.
That kind of coherence is crucial. Terrific schools are typically defined by a shared set of expectations, a faculty that’s committed to the school’s mission and students and families that broadly agree on what they want from the school. While this kind of agreement doesn’t guarantee success, it’s tough for schools to thrive without it.
But because school choice is an opportunity and not a solution, its success rests on having the ecosystem in place to cultivate and support good new schools. Since they first entered the picture more than a quarter-century ago, charter schooling and school voucher programs have enjoyed real success, but far less than advocates anticipated. I suspect this is partly because many advocates spent so much energy insisting that choice “works” that they spent less time than they should have focusing on what it takes to make it likely that choice will work.
In the end, the right way to think about choice is not as Dr. Pendergrast’s Miracle Salve but as an opportunity to empower educators, entrepreneurs and parents. And we should take care not to lose sight of that amidst our energetic debates over test scores and finances.
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