The progressive choice: embrace school choice

Editor’s note: Vouchers, charters, tax-credit scholarships – all part of the right-wing conspiracy to privatize education, right? Doug Tuthill argues that it’s the political left that should champion choice – because it’s the only path to equal opportunity in education.

For progressives who believe in equal educational opportunity, the current state of school choice is problematic.  As the movie “Waiting for Superman” illustrated, limited access to school choice is exacerbating inequalities. Parents who win lotteries, have the right political connections or have the money to buy homes where they want have schooling options less fortunate or less wealthy parents don’t have.

To resolve these inequities, progressives can advocate eliminating all parental choice – and force every child to attend their assigned neighborhood district school – or they can support making school choice ubiquitous.

Leveling the playing field by eliminating all parental choice is not a viable option. This solution would mean closing down all within-district choice programs such as magnet schools, alternative schools, open enrollment programs and career academies, and choice programs that occur outside school districts, including charter schools, online learning programs, homeschooling and private schools. This approach would also require eliminating the most common form of school choice: parents buying homes in their preferred school zone. To stop this practice the government would need to assign families to school zones and then require them to purchase homes in their zones. Of course, this is never going to happen.

So if eliminating school choice is not possible, expanding school choice and making it accessible to every family, regardless of family income, should be the preferred course for progressives. But too often progressives are choosing a third option: abandoning their commitment to equal education opportunity.

A good example is Florida state Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat from Miami. Rep. Bullard represents a legislative district comprised primarily of low-income people of color, but he is also a Dade County teacher union representative and therefore opposes giving his constituents the ability to attend schools not covered by his union’s collective bargaining contract.

Bullard’s rationale is that empowering low-income parents to attend schools not run by school boards hurts public education. But this rationale is based on an overly narrow definition of public education and ignores the inequalities his position perpetuates. School choice will continue to expand over the next several years and as it does progressives such as Rep. Bullard will come under increasing pressure to resolve the contraction between their professed commitment to equal opportunity and their opposition to expanding school choice options for those being left out.

Let’s hope equal opportunity wins out sooner rather than later.

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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.



Ideally, each school district, along with the families that reside within its borders, would recognize the value in maintaining the quality of its schools and make decisions to achieve that end. However, if that were the reality, this discussion would not be occurring. I would just like to add that, in the midst of the discussion about expanding school choice, it is important to respect the rights of those who have exercised “the most common form of school choice” that you referenced above. A public school district should never be required to admit outside students when this would be detrimental to the quality of that district’s schools. And it should always be up to the local school boards to make that determination. There have been many posts on this site condemning certain school boards for trying to protect what they have built and maintained over the course of decades from potentially negative outside influences. How can you favor compulsory school-of-choice participation at the direct expense of those who have opted for the most common, most traditional, most costly and most responsible form of school choice there is?

Your mission statement asks readers to “join our dialogue.” I have posted numerous comments about this topic on your site. I have never received a response from any of your contributors. I challenge you to provide a legitimate answer to the question I’ve posed. Inflammatory language about “gated districts,” “tony communities,” and “$400,000 mortgages” is not what I consider legitimate. Or perhaps, now that Adam Emerson is no longer around, these types of irresponsible posts will no longer appear on your otherwise respectable site. If that proves to be case, then I suppose that would be enough of a “response” for me.

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