Tuesday, November 6, 2012

School Choice: Maintaining the Hierarchies

This was written by Chris Wejr who is an elementary principal in British Columbia, Canada. This post first appeared here. Chris tweets here and blogs here.

by Chris Wejr

“Neo-liberal policies involving market solutions may actually serve to reproduce – not subvert – traditional hierarchies of class and race” — Michael W. Apple

Christy Clark, the new Premier in British Columbia, has long been an advocate of increasing the opportunities for parents to choose schools for their children. Most people’s response to this is that it sounds good – parents should be able to make a decision on which school best meets the needs of their child. In an ideal world, this may work but more questions arise as we look deeper into who truly benefits from school choice.

As most of you know, I believe the autonomy to choose is extremely important in life. Students, staff, and parents need to be provided with equal opportunity to choose how to do things in life. The key word in the previous statement is EQUAL.

When we think about school choice, who does it actually benefit? If a parent is to choose a school away from their neighbourhood school, they must have some of the following:
Only if you have the capital...
  • a school nearby (within driving distance)
  • the cultural capital to discuss school choice and knowledge of options
  • a vehicle for transportation to another school
  • a parent available to drive to another school
  • the finances to be able to pay for private schools or academies (ie. sports academies in BC) as well as transportation
So I ask the question again: who does school choice truly benefit? The answer: students from middle-class urban households. It would be fantastic to be able to drive across town to participate in a Sports Academy – but the student must have access to a number of assets before he/she can even consider this option. I do not blame any parent for making informed decisions that best suit the educational needs of the child; in fact, I think parents need to be MORE involved in educational decisions. But how does school choice benefit a child from a family without a vehicle? One that cannot afford the tuition to a private school or BC academy? One that lives in a rural community in which the next school is hours away? One that has a single parent working two jobs? From a different angle, if students are choosing to attend schools outside of their neighbourhood, what does this do to the community sense of schools (although this argument will be discussed at another time)?

At my previous school, I attempted to bring the Hockey Canada Academy to my school (at a cost of almost $1000/student each semester). The idea is fantastic; students are provided with the opportunity to participate in something in which they are passionate. Unfortunately, as I grew as an educator I began to realize that not ALL students are provided with the opportunity – only those that have the capital. Why is it acceptable that only students who can afford choice schools are provided with the opportunity?

We are now seeing schools and districts compete for students. Parents are provided with Fraser Institute Rankings, ‘standardized’ test scores (that are often marked by their own schools), a variety of academies (that often come with an tuition cost), specialized schools, ‘traditional’ schools, and an option of attending an independent school (based on religion, culture, specialization, etc). Schools that refuse to market themselves, teach to the test, or compete with others schools are sometimes seeing parents choose to send their child elsewhere. Apple (2001) states that there is a “crucial shift in emphasis… from student needs to student performance and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school.” He also goes on to say that “more time and energy is spent on maintaining or enhancing a public image of a ‘good school’ and less time and energy is spent on pedagogic and curricular substance”.

As stated, I am not against choice in education. However, this choice must be available to ALL students so every student in BC is provided with equal opportunity for a ‘personalized learning’ experience. This means that if districts are going to provide specialized schools and academies, all students within the district must be provided with access – in particular, transportation and funding. This also means that rural schools must be provided with funding to be able to provide students with learning opportunities comparable to students in urban communities.

Premier Christy Clark’s education plan includes (from “Christy Clark’s Education Vision: More School Choice”:
  • Support independent and faith-based schools, and promote public-school academies focusing on sports and arts. (She has long been a strong proponent of school choice; her nine-year-old son attends an independent school.)
  • Keep the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) (our provincial standardized test that is used to publish and rank schools)
  • Enhance and emphasize math and science, including promoting province-wide competitions to recognize excellence in those fields.
  • Publish detailed information about school programs, achievements, operations and facilities on school-district websites so parents can make informed choices.
I see similarities from Apple (2001), in discussing the US situation, when he states “We are witnessing a process in which the state shifts the blame for the very evident inequalities in access and outcome it has promised to reduce, from itself on to individual schools, parents, and children.” Ball (1993) also states “markets in education provide the possibility for the pursuit of class advantage and generate a differentiated and stratified system of schooling”. A great blog post from Ira Socol also touches on this issue as he writes:
So parent-based systems reward the haves. They have choices because they have funds, knowledge, transportation, the ability to even home school. And the have-nots are punished. Those children have parents without access to information, without access to transportation (and thus charter choice), without access to their own successful educations as a support system.
School choice, as it is now in BC, does not solve the real problems of the hierarchies of class and race that exist within the current system – they actually maintain them. Unfortunately, we often only hear the voices of those with the cultural capital to speak on behalf of their children and we don’t hear the voices of the marginalized. When we hear that a solution to our education system challenges is school choice, we need to question where this voice is coming from – is it a voice that speaks on behalf of ALL students or just his/her child?

Clark also goes on to say, “My proposals are designed to involve all the stakeholders in creating a kindergarten to 12 system that truly reflects the needs of students.” I am not sure how providing school choice is a way to involve ALL stakeholders and meet the needs of ALL students. Ravitch (2008) writes that “Democratic education [means] that everyone must be educated as if they were children of the most advantaged members of society”. I realize that the funding formula in BC currently encourages schools/districts to compete for students so they are often forced in the direction of promoting school choice. Most will agree that our system needs to change but school choice, the way it is currently designed in BC, benefits primarily the students from advantaged families; schools need to collaborate, rather than compete, and be adequately funded so programs are not cut but are created so as to offer ALL students within each school REAL choice in their education.

References:

Apple, M.W. (2001) Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education, Comparative Education, 37(4), 409-423

Ball, S.J. (1993) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and USA, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(1), 3-19

Ravitch, D.R. (2008) Education and Democracy: The United States as a Historical Case Study, in Coulter, D.L. & Weins, J.R. (Eds)Why Do We Educate? Renewing the Conversation, pp. 42-57 (Blackwell Publishing, Mass, USA)

2 comments:

  1. This is remarkable article on many levels and I could spend a lot of time critiquing it in both positive and negative ways. It is important to acknowledge what Chris did and say that we owe the same quality of education to everyone that our most privileged children. Each child should be seen as privileged. The question that remains unasked is, "What is the cost of this to classroom teachers?" To make this ideal come to life, we would need to support and care for and about classroom teachers much differently than we currently do. I am not whining, but speaking a reality of overworked, overburdened, and teachers who lack the adequate time to make this come to life.

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  2. School choice allows only those who are able to move to move. This takes resources including social capital and people who are living in poverty, even though I do not subscribe to it being their choice, do not always have the wherewithal to decide or to actually act. More importantly, providing choice only ignores the real conversation around "What needs to be done to provide quality education to all children?" It will look different from place to place, but it requires a new conversation that is not happening in our current hierarchical and oppression system. Yes, there is a cost to the classroom teacher, but, if they are listened to and that is not happening, they will see the cost as important and worthy.

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