Forming school communities on the basis of choice

Adam Emerson

Boston University professor Charles Glenn, one of redefinED’s newest contributors and an expert on comparative school choice policy, has taken to the journal First Things to further explore what he has long called the myth of the common schoool. From 1970 to 1991, Glenn served as director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education, where he oversaw the administration of state funds for magnet schools and desegregation:

What has developed in recent decades is a substantial emptying out of the content of democratic localism in education, without a corresponding increase in real control from society as a whole. Professional educational administrators and the teachers’ unions have, between them, come to shape educational practice in countless ways that are beyond the reach of the democratic process, whether at the local, state, or national level. Seldom are real issues of how, much less why, to educate put before parents and other citizens.

Most parents have little appetite to debate these questions, but they are eager to choose among schools with distinctive missions when the alternatives are explained clearly. I saw that in Massachusetts in the 1980s when I had responsibility for promoting educational equity and worked with a dozen cities to create choice-based desegregation plans based on clear differentiation of schools. Parents were much more interested in choice than in “voice.” This in turn made it possible for the teachers in each school to work together to fashion a distinctive approach or mission that would be attractive to parents.

American education now is undergoing a reinvention of localism, in the form of charter schools and other innovations that place significant decisions back in the hands of those engaged with shaping and maintaining an individual school: teachers and other school staff (and students as appropriate) in dialogue with parents and community institutions and supporters, as in the nineteenth century. Since the barriers of distance have been greatly reduced, such school communities can be formed on the basis of choice rather than of geography.

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