We Americans love choice. Just look at the cereal aisle in Giant Eagle. You could choose a different box every day of the month and still have more varieties left to try. But public schools are not corn flakes. Here’s the problem with “choice” when we’re talking about public education.
When we’re in the cereal aisle, we are consumers looking for our favorite brand, the best price, or perhaps grabbing a box of sugar filled junk with a toy surprise inside to appease our screaming two year old who won’t stay in the cart (been there). But schools are public goods, not consumer goods. Think about other public goods and services that you use, such as public safety. We don’t want to choose from different police providers, we want our local police department to be great: to offer high-quality service that meets the needs of our local community.
We don’t need more choices in public education. We need great public schools in every community, that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option.
Choice is a free market ideology. Markets do a good job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality: you can stick five kinds of dirt in those cereal boxes and offer them as a “choice,” but nobody wants to eat that. Pennsylvania teacher and blogger Peter Greene compares school choice to the drive to mediocrity in the cable TV industry and explains, “Market forces do not foster superior quality. Market forces foster superior marketability.”
The parent-as-consumer model promotes school choice as an individual choice, abrogating our responsibility as citizens to provide great public schools for all children. Public schools are community institutions that must meet the needs of communities.