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Home » Chalk Talk – Understanding School Choice Through the Eyes of Our Children

September, 2006

A few months ago, I was driving with my 17-year-old son when he noticed a school in Washington, DC, not far from the Maryland border where we live.

“What’s that?” John asked.

“That’s Murch Elementary School,” I told him. “It’s a very nice public school that I might have looked at if we had ever lived in that part of DC.”

Now, before I continue with the rest of the conversation, there are a few important facts to put on the table.  First, none of my children has ever attended a public school.  While their father and I both went to nothing but public schools growing up, we believed when we moved to Montgomery County, MD that, despite the hullabaloo, schools could do better than what our very wealthy county offered.  We had known people who were happy with their schools there, but we also knew those who, whenever they had any issue they wanted to address – big or small – they were treated as if they had no right to speak, much less complain.

We also understood that even “great” public schools do not meet everyone’s needs, nor do they provide for all that our kids can, or should be able to do.  As a teenager in a “great” high school in Northern New Jersey in the 1970s, I graduated high school without taking a class in American history.

Years later, my niece in the same school was able to get by without any English requirement being fulfilled.  In fact, “Getting By” was the title of a report issued about two years ago by Public Agenda, the well-regarded research and survey firm.  They interviewed thousands of high school students and the overwhelming conclusion was that these kids were allowed to coast, had too much time on their hands, and were the products – victims, really – of low academic and intellectual expectations.  That’s precisely the environment that drives most parents to choose other schools than those to which they have been assigned by the government.  But back to my story.

Having been in the school reform business most of my adult life, I knew what the research said about schools, and that the lagging proficiency rates didn’t just mark poorer communities – that the academic pace of even our best-performing kids had long been trailing off, and that grade inflation and content failure were rampant. Knowing that, as I became a parent, I decided that it was enough to fight the battles on a larger scope; I did not need to subject my kids to the system, not when there were better options for them, and I could afford to make that choice.

As my own kids were coming of school age, the whole-language phase was sweeping the public schools.  Later fuzzy math came into vogue.  The history books grew thinner on content, thicker on politically correct graphics.  The science was, as the international studies confirm, a mile wide and an inch deep.  The schools were too big and too impersonal.  Yet everyone thought that because kids did well, it must be the schools – and not the fact that the families in our county are among the most educated in the entire country.

We also believed in the need for an active, intentional approach to the moral development of our kids in an age when instant gratification and the X-Box were a whine away for most kids.  So we sought Catholic schools, and later, for our boys, an independent boys’ school with a similar religious bent.  As I’ve told my friends and colleagues since I began this school journey with my family, I feel privileged – but I shudder to think that I live in a country where the only people who have such choices are those who can afford them.  It always seemed counter-intuitive that we would fill schools based on where people live, not based on what they can do for children whose parents might find them to be a match.

With this in mind, it will not come as a surprise that when my son followed his inquiries about the school we were passing with his next comment, I was really taken aback.

“How much does it cost?” he asked me.

“It doesn’t really cost anything, John. It’s a public school.”  And then I quickly added, “Well it does cost us all money, but through taxes, not a check we write.”

Silence.  One, two, maybe three minutes went by.  He was clearly shocked.

And then a voice from the back of the car was heard.  My 14-year-old, Teddy, suddenly joined the conversation.  “You mean they don’t have to pay for school and we do?”


“Well, that’s really stupid.”


I proceeded to explain to these young, but clearly astute boys in more detail (though I thought we had covered such ground before) that the kinds of educational opportunities they have been afforded are reserved only for people who can pay for it – who find ways to scrape together tuition, or move to the “right” neighborhood, or some other good fortune.  We talked about the work they have seen their own mother do to bring about more choices for children, and talked about the policies that allow – or hinder – such opportunities.

They had never really understood, though I had talked about it for years.  What they thought, all along, was that I was pounding the proverbial pavement just to help schools get better, not give more children access to such schools.  It was a major revelation.  They took it for granted that schools all over the country were open to all people.  They never segregated the public from the private.

And if you think about it, why should they?  Children – even almost grown ones – have an innocence and depth that often gets lost when we start putting our conventional standards around them.  They see the issue of schools with a purity that few of us have anymore.  It’s no wonder why it’s so hard to change minds and convince people that there is a time and a season and a purpose for delivering schooling differently than we used to – and that it’s late in that season already.  That too many adults can’t see that is a tragedy, but it is not insurmountable if we look at it from the standpoint of our young.

Children have no pre-existing blinders that lead them to believe some system should be protected at all costs.  They are amazingly astute, and truly indignant when things seem not fair.

And they’re right.  With the exception of four operating school choice programs, most kids in the country who really could use a much better school – and for whom that could be the difference between real life opportunities and a dead-end job, if not worse – will never have one.

Children’s choices are limited not because it’s wrong for them to have options, but because the political clout of the unions, and the school boards conglomerates, and the administrators, and all the rest of the groups who drive a stake in the ground and claim public education as theirs, do not want people to have choices.  They want children to attend schools they work in, cogs in the system they protect, regardless of the fact that those schools, that system, are not doing for everyone what they were intended to do from the start.

You see, adults drill children to understand they are going to school to learn.  Sometimes they like it, often they don’t, but they understand deep down its value.  Even students who drop out, or face enormous challenges in school, don’t really want not to learn.  But they know the school environment they are stuck in is wrong for them, and the challenges they face inside that one-size-fits-all environment are too great for them to handle.

Whether it’s because of such challenges, or not enough challenge, whether it’s because of unique learning styles, or special needs or abilities, no one school can do it all for all kinds of kids.

My kids have all kinds of different friends, just like I do.  They found them through various schools and activities, just like we do as adults.  Our needs vary and evolve, as do our alliances, interests and activities.  But when we send students to schools based on where they live, we are ignoring any potential for addressing individual needs, for nurturing new interests and alliances.  We have set a course for children that, in most cases, they must follow regardless of interests or aptitudes.

But that’s not the only reason school choice is important to our nation in cultivating and maintaining active, engaged and productive citizens.  Now more than ever it’s important because the system we have does not produce excellence.  We have schools in every sector that work, and in every sector we have too many schools that don’t.  Sending a child to school should require thought and attention, but not a brick wall to scale.

It should be as simple for adults to accept as for the younger among us.  Maybe that’s where we need to start.