Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What if Parents Did Have an Absolute Right to Choose Their Child's School

Corey Buje Bower at Thoughts on Education Policy asks a wonderful question:
Let's say school choice takes off. Local schools disappear and every school is charter, private, open-enrollment, or whatever. So the school one attends is almost purely up to the parent. In this case, if the parent chooses a bad school and the kid doesn't get a good education . . . the parent is now to blame for making a bad choice. And, it means that students who succeed and students who fail are now separated by parents who make good choices and parents who make bad choices. Where it gets interesting for me is this: if a kid fails because their parent makes the wrong choice then what do we do about it?
I am an ardent believer in school choice and I have postulated that America should move to a fully free choice schooling, where no option is off the table. Whether that happens or not is an open question unlikely to be solved any time soon. But what about Bower's question?

Well if we back up a little and look at Bower's lead-in to the question, we see that Bower notes that we in society and more importantly in government, look for who to blame for a problem.
In discussions of welfare, medicaid, etc. the debate often centers whose fault it is that somebody needs help. One can argue that anybody who cannot support themselves is to blame for their condition. If that's the case, then it's not illogical to argue that the public shouldn't help support that person. We run into a problem, however, if they have children -- who certainly are not to blame for their condition. It's hard to argue that the public shouldn't provide those children help of some sort because the children don't get to choose into which family they're born. Exactly what type of help and how it should be provided (e.g. should assistance be filtered through parents? should children be removed from their families?) is the harder question to answer.

In education when we encounter people (students) with problems, we seem to blame their surroundings (schools). We see students that are underperforming and we put their teachers' and administrators' feet to the fire. Inequality of achievement is the fault of the schools. If schools did their jobs, then all kids would succeed.
By the way, this blame seeking and assignment is a non-partisan activity--everyone does it.

But there is an assumption at the heart of Bower's proposition, that equality of outcome is possible and in the control of any one group of people. This goal of equality of education and a high degree of education at that, while noble, is dependent on far too many variables amoung people. Conservatives blame the schools, "if the schools were more stringent" or "based on better curricula" we would get better students. Liberals tend to blame societal problems "these are poor minority kids that cannot overcome their poverty stricken surroundings" or "the violence in these kids lives" prevents learning.

I have no doubt that each side means well and I understand policy makers are tying to do their best. But both sides have a problem. Take a look at some of the best schools in the country; there are students who excell and students who don't. Look at some of the poorest, most violent schools in the country; there are some students who excell and many who don't. The question really is not a factor of policies or environment, it is a factor of the student and that student's family. With perfect school choice, you take away the ability of a family to "blame" the school or the neighborhood or the violence. (By the way, perfect school choice as we all know is impossible since there is a finite number of seats available in any school so not everyone can get it).

So if the school fails and the parents chose the school, Bower asks, what can we do for the child? I ask, first do we as a society have to do anything? At what point do we as the state/society have a duty to stand in loco parentis? Do we have that duty in a free society? Under what conditions?

For me the answer to Bower's question is, we do nothing. We have provided a choice model for parents. We no more tell a parent they are making a bad choice about the car they drive or the clothes they wear. In a full choice model, the only responsibility of the state is to ensure that each school meets a minimum standard of competency, nothing more nothing less. After that, the consequences belong to the parents.

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