Of school choice and human dignity

John E. Coons

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose.

-Emerson, intellect

Picking the school that will teach one’s child is a bracing experience, one not always without issue between the only two persons whose opinions count in American law – or between them and their child.

Where parents vary in their preference of school, the decision requires each to assess his or her own values. These can differ regarding religion, art, science, racial integration, music, athletics or teaching style and atmosphere. And, even if father and mother agree upon curriculum and style, they can divide on which available institution (or home school) would best serve their common objective.

In short, they behave as responsible humans working their way to a decision – even in the end, by the flip of a coin; and, if experience proves them wrong, they can start the process over and maybe get it right.

The solo parent experiences the same re-examinations of values, then must alone decide what is among the truly serious questions of most adult lives: How do I best serve this child of mine as together we face and prepare for the years ahead?

Strangely, in our nation, most parents of modest means will be denied such challenging personal experience. The child will be decided for by an abstraction: The State. No human being who knows and loves and hopes for Susie will decide for her; her fate will be settled by the accident of her family address within some “attendance zone” drawn by strangers from some other social world.

This never-never land of education will be the child’s experience for 180 days a year for 13 years. She will spend her days willy-nilly with teachers, some of whom she will admire and others she won’t. She will, by chance, be now content and next in misery. It won’t matter; this is it for her. Sad tales at the dinner table will be just that, nothing more. Her parents can neither rescue her nor usefully learn from this experience and seek something better. The whole family is stuck and impotent.

The effect upon these choiceless parents? I suppose one could imagine a few of them grateful for the child’s abduction and their own liberation by The State. Who needs to decide such things? Mom is spared, she need only deliver the child to PS 99, there to receive a cheery introduction and farewell from Miss Somebody. She and Susie’s father can then go home or to work and enjoy their acquittal from responsibility and authority.

Is this an enriching experience for them, for Susie and for the rest of us who witness our country’s liquidation of civic and personal duty for this most vulnerable part of our community, with its inevitable effects upon society itself? Is that effect overall positive? I find this hard to believe.

What could be the justification – the excuse – for this prostration of the poor? If society sees that choice is good for the middle class, why is servility best for the not-so-well-off parent and child and, in turn, for society writ large? Why doesn’t the spectacle of poverty call for our encouraging their dignity and responsibility instead of imposing an educational serfdom implying their irrelevance?

Are test scores the measure of some need for this prostration of the poor? Much of the academy and media appear convinced that they are the best measure of a school’s success; scores are, of course, the only “objective” evidence and very available. Many scholars of statistics seem to support our historic disabling of the poor, yet concede that inner-city kids have been doing slightly better on tests when enrolled in charter or private schools – or also by choice in highly selective “public” schools serving young geniuses. (See New York Times 3/19/19 and 3/23/19.) But this apparent success of choice, they say, is merely an effect of such converted schools’ ability to maintain some control over who among the poor get admitted.

Assume that this is true (the question is open), and further assume that this authentic choice for the more gifted is subtly harmful to test scores of those kids unselected by these charters and elite “public” schools. Should it not then follow that we cannot shrink from choice but rather must broaden such programs, perhaps raising test scores for all those children?

So long as these statistical differences remain both disputed and marginal, the test score infatuation appears largely an effect of the special convenience of these numbers to the critic. They are easy to obtain and report. Meanwhile, however, there is a much bigger, if non-numerical, game afoot in the crusade for parental choice. And the very biggest among these are the minds and souls of the parents and children themselves. It is hard to imagine a more effective instrument to maintain the servility and civic irresponsibility of human beings than the message: Don’t worry; we’ll take care of your child’s mind.

By contrast middle-class parents are allowed, encouraged and expected to worry; it is their responsibility, indeed a prized aspect of their human dignity. It is also their constitutional power and right, one that, for the poor, is snatched away simply because their poverty – their vulnerability – allows this dirty trick.

Is there any excuse for such a degrading tactic of our state governments? If society believes that freedom of choice for the middle class (and the very smart) is a good thing, why is servility to The State the best policy for the not-so-well-off parent and child, and for society? Why should the poor be barred from this experience so cherished by the bourgeoisie? The scheme does, of course, maintain the comfort of the teachers union, but can we find something more positive in its favor? I cannot.

If there be anything needed in American education, it is the recognition that no parent should be stripped of authority and responsibility because of her economic status; that no child should be required to witness parenthood as a feeble institution worthy only of pity and escape; and that no society should arrange its schools so as to convince its less monied parents that their authority and capacity are despised by the rest of us. It is a recipe for social disaster, one that may explain much of our current national angst. Let’s fix it.

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