Klein is close, but his call for choices falls short

Adam Emerson

Outgoing New York schools chancellor Joel Klein is right to identify that low-income families deserve to have the best educational options available to them, but he frames the argument for school choice in a way that stops short of advocating for equal opportunities for our most disadvantaged families.

In the Wall Street Journal today, Klein reflects on his tenure running the nation’s largest school system and explains how his embrace of charter schools was especially controversial in a district where, he wrote, “bureaucrats, unions and politicians had their way.” He writes, “the debate shouldn’t be about whether a school is a traditional or charter public school. It should be about whether it’s high-performing, period.”

Allow us to take his argument a step further, in two ways. First, charter is not the only alternative for underprivileged children. Second, we should take special care when labeling any school as high- or low-performing, because the variation within schools is typically greater than between schools. An International Baccalaureate school is high-performing based on standardized test performance and many other measures, but is not necessarily the best fit for all students.

One day before Klein published his column, RiShawn Biddle made the point on his blog, Dropout Nation, that education is a civil right, and those rights include choices for all. While Biddle has no patience for bureaucrats who promise to overhaul what he calls “dropout factories,” he also doesn’t see school choice as a solution only for students stuck in failing schools. “Even in relatively better-performing (if often still mediocre) suburban schools,” Biddle writes, “poor and minority kids are often afterthoughts in instruction and curricula. For them and their middle-class schoolmates, the need for options that better-suit their educational needs is one that most traditional districts just cannot meet.”

The editors of redefinED live in an environment where that philosophy is a daily reality. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which we help to administer, is available to any child in grades K-12 who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch. It depends in no part on whether the school that child attends is considered “failing.” In fact, many of the 33,000 students now enrolled in the program come from schools considered among the state’s best, but those children are disproportionately among the poorest-performing students in those schools, and they come from households that are the poorest among their free or reduced-lunch peers.

In Florida, we can more clearly see that charter is not the only viable alternative for these children. In fact, the school district that includes Jacksonville, which has 124,000 students and is the nation’s 22nd largest district, makes a stark case about the on-the-ground reality. In Jacksonville/Duval today, low-income students can choose from 30 district magnet schools, 13 charter schools and 106 private schools eligible for tax-credit scholarships.

The tax-credit schools also tend to be smaller and more mission-driven, and roughly fourth-fifths of them are faith-base. As Biddle argues, the options are out there. “Catholic diocesan schools have been serving as a way out for poor families for the past century,” he writes. It is that faith-based option, however, that too often reduces the debate over school choice to rhetorical warfare.

We agree with Chancellor Klein: we have to rethink what a public school means to a family desperate for options. But we need to understand that there are many options to be considered and that different children learn in different ways.

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