Consider downside of denying choice

school choice
Professor Jack Coons of Berkeley Law writes that defenders of the government’s subordination of poor parent’s right to choose must justify the profound and debasing distinction we have drawn between social classes.

Assemblyman Snodgrass would appreciate your thoughtful response to questions about school choice she will face this year in the legislature. You may respond at length if you choose.

Who is better able to decide upon the school that the individual child will attend?
a. Whoever draws the boundary lines of the attendance zones that determine the specific public schools to which individual children are assigned according to family residence?
b. That child’s parent?

If you answered “a,” is this because, without having met the child, the government is a better decider of this issue?
a. Yes.
b. No.

If “yes” to Question No. 2, should well-off parents still be permitted to choose a private school or to buy into the attendance zone for the public school they prefer?
a. Yes.
b. No.

If “yes” to Question No. 3, is this because wealthier parents:
a. Care about their child?
b. Know more about their child?
c. Both a and b?
d. Other? Explain [space at the end]

Would the system work better for child and society if lower-income parents received financial aid from the state sufficient for them to choose a private school? (And explain at the end.)
a. Yes.
b. No.

Should society worry that such indigent parents might choose a religious school?


And so on. Any reader can invent such a questionnaire. My point, of course, is that we sorely need a clearer recognition – and either justification or replacement – of our studied conscription of the lower-income child and parent for the local public school.

The social consequences of the system appear to me horrific but insufficiently studied. After 60 years in academia, writing as an observer, I worry that the social scientists in our ed schools remain focused on test scores as the sole measure of school excellence; of course, even by that standard, choice seems to improve things a bit. That modest improvement those experts hostile to school choice for the poor assign to tricky admission controls by the private schools.

Whoever is right, one thing is plain. A policy of subsidized school choice for the poor does no harm in respect to scores. I say, stop the fuss; there are more important things at issue. If defenders of our government’s subordination of the parent because of poverty are to make their case, they must somehow justify the profound and debasing distinction we have drawn between social classes. So far as this observer can see, our historic, and quite conscious, disqualification of lower-income parents may well be a primary cause of some of America’s most menacing social realities. To name a few:

  1. The inner-city parent finds herself functionless as a decision-maker for the central hours and years of her own child’s development. Deemed irresponsible by the state, she accepts her demotion and proceeds to act out her assigned role as a nobody. The child’s father – well you know the statistics.
  2. The child observes the parent’s impotence and concludes that parenthood is a role for nobodies. “I guess that’s what being a family is about. I don’t need that. Either I go with the school or the street. But if I go with the school, come June this teacher’s gone for good – then the same next year. Who has the stuff to help me? Maybe the gang.
  3. In adjusted dollars our society now spends twice the dollar level per student of the “good old days.” Fewer than half of public school employees today are classroom teachers.

My wife was – and one of our sons still is – a public school teacher. Our daughter taught for years in inner-city Catholic schools. By chance and choice, our kids spent exactly half their total semesters in public schools.

We could choose, and we are grateful.