The rationale for choice and the greater good

The Sunday New York Times featured a front page story on the rise of charter schools in the suburbs and quoted one charter school opponent, Matthew Stewart, in Millburn, N.J., as stating, “In suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the rationale for a charter school?

The rationale for all learning options, including virtual learning, homeschooling, magnet schools, career academies and charter schools is primarily twofold. First, every child is unique and all parents, regardless of their financial status, have the right to match their child with the learning options that best meet her needs. Self determination is a basic human need. We all want the freedom to determine our own destiny and parents in particular want and need the freedom to do what’s best for their children. Denying parents this freedom undermines parenting, schooling and student development.

The second rationale is tied to organizational improvement. Public education is strengthened when its primary customers, the parents, have multiple schooling options and are empowered to choose the options that best meet their children’s needs. When customers are forced to receive services from a single provider, that provider will not be as effective or efficient as when customers are able to choose from multiple providers.

Many school choice advocates like to assert that parents need choices to escape from failing schools, but that’s a poor rationale for many reasons, most notably because it leads to endless debates over what constitutes a failing school. A school’s quality derives from the interaction between that school and each child. It’s the school-child relationship that succeeds or fails. Almost every school succeeds with some children and fails with others.

Of course some schools are so toxic we can all agree they should be closed, but the vast majority of schools are not in this category. I sent my older son to the only “F” rated school in Pinellas County, Fla., and he had a good experience. Conversely, I sent my younger son to the highest rated academic program in the district and he had a terrible experience. Hence, my belief that as a parent I can’t evaluate a school’s effectiveness independent of how that school affects my child.

Expanding customized learning options is key to improving public education. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Stewart’s assertion that giving suburban parents access to more learning options will undermine the greater good.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.