The leader of our teachers unions, national and local, appear to live in dread of our states subsidizing choice of school for the low-income parent. These mighty monopolies of the children of our have-not families seem convinced of their own schools’ vulnerability to competition; the liberated mother appears all too likely to execute a quick bail-out for her child.
Here in California, we get to watch the union function in constant paranoia; ever protecting the status quo, it has nourished a rare cordiality with Sacramento, where its influence has kept charter schools very limited in numbers far below the evident parental demand. Family choice threatens their sovereignty over the poor; hence, the charter gets labeled a bad influence, a threat to our otherwise ideal system.
Maybe some charters are, in fact, not so good; their teachers can be sloppy, their facilities second rate, the atmosphere gloomy, and test scores a point or two below average. Just because most of them are popular, who needs such disasters becoming available to all parents?
We all do.
Markets, in due course, can dispose of the inferior few that will always exist; we can happily risk the short-lived, third-rate charter in order to secure the only mechanism – choice – that works to clear the system of failures. Competition among institutions allows customers to decide which school should live. If Happy Hollow Elementary disappoints, mothers and fathers can choose again in hope of getting it right this time.
All of us make mistakes (or so I hear). But these inevitable errors can be part of a valuable learning experience for both parent and child. Mother and father may come to realize that Joey was better off back at his underrated assigned public school. Or, more likely, their empowerment will move them to try a second charter (or private) school, one that appears free of the faults of both schools they have decided to abandon.
Learning from our mistakes can have happy consequences for us humans; in our school domain, there are four such outcomes that seem quite obvious:
· The public school that loses students by parental choice just might awaken to its own failures and mend them, hopefully making itself competitive for the future.
· The parent will, at last, experience the stimulus of real authority, power, and sheer dignity – hence of responsibility.
· The child will begin to appreciate the parent as sovereign and caring, hence of family, as a blessing.
· The society will have given its citizens the chance to become responsible actors in the human story.
Unless our civic aim were to maintain our historical regime of servitude, there is no real downside.
The securing of school choice for the impoverished family can take a wide variety of practical legislative forms. The design of state systems that will truly protect that family from discrimination in the private sector and that will do this without threatening the scholastic identity of the school itself is a challenge.
Over the years, Stephen Sugarman and I designed a half-dozen or more diverse models, all aiming to protect the uniqueness of both seller and buyer; none is perfect, but all, I can hope, would be workable and politically prudent. Of course, the form adopted would very likely vary from state to state in their structure.
Reform in pursuit of choice for the poor may, in many states, entail political earthquake in order to become reality. However, that reality excuses none of us from rejecting this nation’s indefensible and degrading treatment of families lacking the resources that the rest of us carefully display in the parental hope to realize the latent capacities and vision of our descendants.