It seems that all the non-educators have listened to one another long enough that they’ve settled (at least until something sexier comes along) on “school choice” as the salvation for all education ills.
Gosh, just look around Alabama. Such stalwarts of public schools as Senator Del Marsh, Rep. Terri Collins and the Business Council of Alabama shout “choice” till the cows come home. Why school choice will make every student valedictorian, as well as cure grandma’s arthritis and junior’s ground itch.
It works like this.
You just get out of the way and let mother and daddy pick the perfect school for their chillun. Because you see, no one knows a good school when they see one better than they do.
Sadly, this is where the “choice” rational goes awry.
I figured this out years ago as I kept looking and re-looking at some numbers my friend Gerald Johnson put together. Actually, these numbers were revealed in a survey of 796 registered voters by Gerald when he ran the Capital Survey Research Center. They were gathered in May 2011. They are as powerful today as they were then.
How many times have I stared at these numbers? A hundred? Probably more. Have run them around and around in my head. But just never written about them until now.
Maybe because their message is so stark. Or maybe because the truth they reveal is hard for some to accept. However, until we do, we will be led by false prophets telling us “school choice” is something it really isn’t. Truth is, mother and daddy may not be such a good judge of school quality after all.
Gerald, who conducted hundreds of such surveys, was trying to get a sense of how the public felt about public schools. He asked 39 questions, covering a range of topics, but it was how respondents viewed schools in their own neighborhood, community and statewide that got my attention.
As any good pollster does, Gerald broke responses down by certain demographics. It was the responses for different income levels that jumped off the page. These were classified as less than an annual income of $25,000; $25-$50,000; $50-$75,000; $75-$100,000 and more than $100,000.
Poverty level is a long-established key indicator for education performance. The higher the poverty level in a school, the more they struggle to reach proficiency levels. (This is most often interpreted as students on free/reduced lunch.) Of course we know that kids in poverty can achieve. I have visited many such schools. But I know these are more the exception than the rule.
And we have to be honest enough to know that the vast number of incomes of less than $25,000 will have children in a high poverty school, whereas that is not the case where incomes are $100,000 and greater.
When these two incomes were asked to give a letter grade to the school their oldest child attends, response was almost identical. Some 44.9 percent of low income folks said their children went to an A school, while it was 47.2 percent for the highest income group.
What about schools in their community? Again, not much difference. The low income folks said 23.6 percent were A, while the other group said 20.2 percent.
This is where “school choice” gets blown to pieces. Proponents of “choice” say that parents know schools. But do they? There is simply no way these two groups of parents define an A school in the same way. I think the truth is that for decades we have claimed some schools are far better than they really are.
The “choice” advocates say let the market work. Let completion among schools rule the day. Which is just another way of saying, we’ll crank up a slick marketing campaign to fill our classrooms. After all we know some folks can be fooled. We’ve been doing it for years.
And instead of attempting to float all boats and elevate all students, we will keep on the road to widening the achievement gap. And the politicians will lead us, the same who swore on a stack of Bibles that the Alabama Accountability Act would help poor kids in failing schools. How did that work out?