March 27, 2024

Jose Luis Vilson: What Choice Do We Have?

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Teacher, scholar and writer Jose Luis Vilson looks back at some of the costs of choice in New York, and then draws some conclusions about the gap between ideals and reality.

On the surface, the argument for school choice sounds pitch-perfect. Everyone should have an opportunity to go to the school that fits them and their community’s needs. From a racial standpoint, it means students of color should have the chance to leave their under-resourced schools to more well-resourced schools like their wealthy-white counterparts do. Students of color, particularly Black students, shouldn’t have to withstand racial and other forms of identity-based discrimination from their peers, teachers, or principals to get a good education. Over the last two decades, the privatization of public education made it possible for even the most earnest adults to wave the “school choice” flag and scream that they were winning … something.

What’s more, the enactment of integration efforts has only led to white parents carving out their own schools – and districts – to evade sitting their children with “others.” Students of color should have similar options as well.

However, over the last three decades, we’ve also seen how the enactment of “school choice” has created levels of rot to the detriment of the very students who ostensibly stood to benefit the most from those policies. We already set up students for a certain level of failure when we create a lottery system or a standardized test for children to get a sound and basic education. The “losers” of the lottery matriculate in public schools where, regardless of the quality of the school, they still feel disenchanted for not getting in. For students who stay, they’ll get peppered with demerits for infractions ranging from not wearing their “behavior lanyards” around their necks to not “TRACK”ing their teachers.

The adults in the building fare no better, either. If only we all had the chance to listen to overworked educators, principals under duress, and schools having to co-locate and see the inequity immediately. The “results” may seem worth it in the form of graduation rates and achievement scores, but how this set of schools got these numbers leaves everyone but the school leaders disillusioned.

In naming these faults, one can point out that many of these incidents are also happening in public schools, and they’d be right. Specialized high schools and gifted and talented programs aren’t always helpful in this respect. Our dialogue about public vs. charter schools doesn’t serve this conversation well because it doesn’t include how independent and/or private schools also influence our school systems. But we shouldn’t be doubling down on practices that made public schooling awful for many, putting them in schools with less regulations, and calling it “equity.”

Rather, my prompt is to push for every school to be a great choice. To paraphrase Linda Darling-Hammond, America’s obsession with choice subverts a vision for equity and justice for our schools.

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