Does “school choice” serve the students?

Steve Ruis explains quite clearly why it doesn’t:

The Limits of School Choice

by Steve Ruis

I have written before about the “school choice movement,” a thinly disguised privatizing campaign seeking to suck up some of those public dollars being spent on public education. Basically, once “financiers” had ravaged all of the private economic segments, they decided that the vast untapped market of “education” was the last frontier for their rapaciousness.

Lets look at the idea from a cost benefit basis.

Suppose you live in a smallish town which supports a number of grade schools, maybe a middle school or two and a single high school. Your community does it best to create good schools with the highest community standards they can muster but, of course, there are limitations. This high school cannot offer every possible course that might serve a small cluster of students, so they focus on offering courses that will serve the majority.

So, is having a second school even an option for such a community? The answer is clearly no. Dividing the communities funds into two pools to offer the same curriculum doesn’t make any sense at all. This would involve and increase in infrastructure costs with no increase in capacity. So, could not each of the two schools focus their efforts, such as one being an arts magnet school and the other a science magnet school (just for example)? Again, this is problematic. What if the two clusters are of unequal size with the arts school having twice the number of students as the science school? And why spread them out? Why not have schools within the original school, so that classes in both areas could be available to all students? Why deprive the science students of the art classes being taught at the other school? (Scientists are often drawn to music; one of my chemistry professors was a performing cellist.)

Okay we now move up a notch. Our community is now large enough to support two high schools. Should competition between these two play a role in the running of these two schools? For example, let’s say that one school is clearly superior to the other, and you decide to let the parent’s choose which school to place their kids in. (I have seen this happen in public schools through the simple expedient of parent’s lying about where they lived, using an aunt’s address for example to get their kid into a desirable school.) In this case, knowledgeable parents will sign their kids up to the “good” school and desert the “bad” school. The “good” school will suffer from overloading issues (large class sizes, teacher burnout from trying to interact with too many students, wear and tear on facilities, etc.) and the “bad” school will suffer from small class sizes (limiting student interactions), inability to field sports teams, inability to offer classes in advanced topics due to low enrollment, etc.

Plus, you have to ask how it is that parents determine which school is good and which is bad. If we take how well they are informed when it comes to voting as an example, their education “decisions” won’t be as informed as we all might wish them to be.

Currently, schools are set up, mostly, to serve geographic communities. This does have some advantages for racists, of course, with the whole school busing movement testifies to, But there are legitimate reasons for this also. Would you want your child taking a one-hour bus ride, each way, every day for school? Would you want to drive them to school and back this way (four hours per day driving for you)? Such schools also can be more community oriented. Schools in farming regions can teach agriculture courses, for example. (I lived in a rural community in which the high school had a gunsmithing course.) Schools near technology centers can teach more tech classes, etc. That is these schools can teach topics that lead to employment in their community, which helps keep communities together, instead of kids drifting away from the community to find work. Community colleges exemplify these goals.

So, now let’s look at large school districts, having multiple high schools. Is competition between any of them at all good (outside of between student athletic or academic teams)?

To engage in competition that is considered healthy and which leads to superior “products” you have to ask whether or not the “competitors” are equipped to compete. In the major metropolitan area I now live in (Chicago), the athletic teams are segregated by school population. The really large schools don’t compete against tiny schools. The large schools have all of the advantages and would just crush the smaller school teams. The same issues apply to school academic issues. Large schools have thousands of candidates for any sport or academic team (e.g. debate, Math Olympiad, etc.). The really small schools may have only dozens. This is why they make sport movies, e.g. Hoosiers, about a small school team beating a large school team for a championship. Just through sheer numbers, the larger schools have great advantages.

So, let’s say that schools do compete. Do they have control over the tools of competition? Control over things like budget, coaching, teacher quality, etc? Largely they do not. In wealthier areas, there are alumni support groups who donate funds to support athletic teams. In poor areas, the parents cannot afford such things. In rich areas, the tax base is greater and financial support is better. In rich areas, teachers have better living conditions. School districts, no matter how much they recruit, do not determine who applies for teaching jobs at their schools, the teachers make those decisions.

Once teachers are hired, is there an infrastructure in place to determine which are really good, which are adequate and which are so poor as to deserve being fired? The answer is kinda sorta, unfortunately. Unlike in business, there are no production or sales parameters that can be used to determine which people are pulling their own weight. (My own experience is that the vast majority of teachers are “competent.” Very few are brilliant or exemplary and also very few are so bad as to need their contracts terminated.

Now, are their any examples of what competition does for the schools? It turns out there is. A recent survey determined the highest paid “state employee” of each state of the US. Who do you think it turned out to be highest paid state employee most frequently? The governors? The presidents of university systems? The heads of public healthcare networks or public utilities? In most states, the highest paid state employee . . . drum roll, please . . . was one of the state’s university’s football coaches. This is what competition gets you . . . vastly overpaid employees . . . which always have vastly underpaid employees elsewhere as a compensation. In a university system where Nobel-prize winning academics can only hope for a salary as high as $200,000 annually, football coaches make five, six, seven million dollars for the same term.

So, we must be very careful in determining who reaps the benefits of competition as it isn’t always the people being served.

I cannot fathom a scenario in which school competition benefits the students most. We have seen charter school after charter school close business, some do this before they have officially opened. In business this is acceptable, but in educating the youths of our community, this is unacceptable. Those students are required, by law, to be educated. The money spent to educate those students at the closing charter schools is gone. But those students will be lined up for admission at the public schools the very next day and they cannot be turned away . . . no “Sorry, you have already spent your allocation of public education money, you will have to wait until next year to continue your education.” Imagine having been sold a lemon of a car and then dumping that and lining up at a government office for free public transportation. Is that happening anywhere? Does anyone actually want that kind of “education insurance”?

The charter school movement is sucking the funds out of our public schools systems. They are enabled in this effort by supportive politicians which make up supportive laws just for them . . . and these politicians receive “campaign donations,” aka bribes, from the charter operators to do this, often using public funds they were given for other purposes. (Any public school system doing that would result in people in jail.) The charter operators claim to offer “school choice” . . . but do they? Testing shows that charter schools are little different from public schools in educational outcomes. They differ solely in their ability to go out of business, which they do at alarming rates. So, what kind of choice is this? It is a bogus choice. It is like a restaurant making extravagant claims about the quality of their food, so you go and find out that their food is awful. The restaurant doesn’t care because they already have your money and they aren’t dependent upon repeat business. This is the Achilles heel of the “competition” argument. Modern marketing allows people to be hoodwinked into buying what they are selling. When they don’t deliver, you have no recourse. And, they are not dependent upon you being a repeat customer.

There is a word for this kind of business, several actually: scam, con, Ponzi scheme, etc.

Now, I do not deny that there are some reputable charter schools, who serve students adequately. But are these really a “choice” that makes anything better? Imagine a community that has a dozen different car dealerships. Then someone opens up a second, say, Chevrolet dealership which offers the same models at the same prices as the one already there. Do you really have any additional choice or are you and the other car buyers just spreading your car buying money around into more hands?

Published in: on October 8, 2020 at 7:53 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. The answer is clearly “yes.” Our children attended K-12 district public schools. We were delighted that the district offered options. We helped create some – such as an K-12 “open school”

    Other examples
    * we’ve worked with district teachers in rural communities to create schools within schools. The teachers who wanted to teach a single grade continued to do so. The teachers who wanted to teach in a multigrade situation could do that. Some prefer a Montessori approach. Some a more traditional approach. Families could chose.

    * Second example – some high school students prefer taking college level courses in their high school. Some prefer the more flexible approach offered on a college campus – or via on-line courses. Some Mn high schools have responded to this situation by turning to high school faculty and asking it they would like to teach “college in the schools” courses in cooperation with college faculty.

    * Third example – some districts and educators believe equity means the same – offer the same program in each of their schools. Other educators and families have a different vision

    Finally, here are a few quotes from families about how their youngsters benefitted from having a different option

    Several of these are appearing in columns published by various Mn newspapers:


    Paladin parent Colleen Fodness told me that her daughter is on the autism spectrum. While “she’s a good student, she needed an open, accepting, flexible environment. She needed teachers who could adapt the environment. She’s thriving at Paladin, where she feels accepted, not different.”

    Brandon Wait, Paladin Career and Technical High School’s executive director, told me that the school opened in 2003 with 84 students. Today it has around 200. “We’ve intentionally remained small (around 200) to keep that community feel.”


    Brian Papworth, a parent at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, told me: “Northwest Passage is exactly what my son need. It’s a true gift for us. Both of our boys have learning differences that have led us to their respective schools. We are new to Minnesota and are very grateful to have the choice of a charter school for their education.”

    Melissa Sondrol wrote, “My son is a 10th grader at Northwest Passage High School. It has been a life saver for him. He’s on the autism spectrum. He’s one of the kids who slipped through the cracks. We’ve gone from a sullen kid who doesn’t smile much to a youngster who is excited about school and has many friends.”

    Christy Carmichael said her son is in his senior year at Northwest Passage High School. She wrote: “The school has been nothing short of life-changing for him. He doesn’t do well in class settings. He needs constant instant challenge. Our son has been able to explore his passion for computer programming. He’s been able to launch what he thinks he wants to do the rest of his life. He built software system to run the school’s locks. The faculty functions as guides and inspirations.”

    [full quote – partial included in column]
    Cathy Gallo explained, “My husband and I have three daughters who attend PACT Charter School: a third, 5th, and 6th grader. My husband is an alumni of PACT. Our middle daughter really struggled in public school and was on the PACT waitlist for over a year. We chose to enroll her because of the small class sizes and the personalized education plan. PACT was able to give one of my daughters an IEP after years of fighting the public school system to get her IEP meeting. Within 30 days of starting PACT, she had a full education plan set up and services started to help her reach her full potential.”

    DaVinci Acade

    Katie Manella, from Coon Rapids, wrote: “We have a first and fourth grader in DaVinci Academy of Arts and Sciences (in Ham Lake). I’ve always loved the community feel of DaVinci. I also love the relationships that my kids have built with the staff. The staff really goes up and beyond to get to know each child. … Our kids love what they are learning and even in such an unusual year they are so excited for their in person days at school.”

    Davinci Academy opened in 2008 with 160 students. This K-8 school now enrolls approximately 860 students. The U.S Department of Education has given the school its “Blue Ribbon Award,” signifying selection as one of the nation’s best schools.


    Matt McFarlane, the executive director at PiM (Performing Institute of Minnesota) Arts High School, reported that the school has grown from about 89 students in 2004 to 355 currently enrolled.

    Mike Fabisch, a parent and teacher at PiM, wrote: “My son went to PiM for four years. He graduated last June. He is now attending the University of Michigan, one of the top schools for musical theater in the country. He was one of 24 selected from over 2,000 that applied for the program. This can be directly attributed to his time at PiM. We initially enrolled our son at PiM for two main reasons. First, my son wanted to be able to attend a school that would allow him to put more focus on his art. Second, he did not want to attend a large “factory” school. PiM fit the bill to perfection. From the moment we walked in the door, we were made to feel like we were part of their family. How has PiM helped my child? PiM not only allowed my child to continue excelling academically (he has always been a straight-A student), he grew as an individual and even more so as an artist. Any student who wishes to excel in their art, increase their confidence as an individual, and/or pursue higher education could not find an institution and staff more dedicated to helping them achieve their goals.”

    Lakes International – Forest Lake

    Parent Meyri Ruano explained through a translator that she has a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old at the school. “I chose LILA because of the good reviews and because it offered the opportunity for my children to learn in Spanish. I would describe it as an excellent school. Teachers are great at communicating with students and parents. I also like the fact that my children get to learn about many different cultures.”

    Shannon Peterson, Lakes International Language Academy director, told me that the school has grown from 177 K-12 students in 2004 to 1,300 in 2020, along with 100 pre-K students.


    Kim Master has a fourth and seventh grader at Partnership Academy in Richfield. She wrote: “I was desperately looking for a place that could meet my kids’ special needs (significantly behind in school and had fallen through the cracks in public schools).”
    However, she explained, “Upon touring PA, I immediately felt like I was part of a family. They HEARD me, spoke highly of my children’s abilities and resiliency without having even met them. And it was so clear that they cherished all of their students and families, and knew them all personally, by the interactions I observed. I knew without a doubt it’s where I wanted the boys to be.”

    She continued: “The oldest transitioned to PA this past spring, coming from a long stay at a day treatment program because of emotional/behavioral needs. He was working on subjects two years behind grade level. PA teachers (general Ed and special ed both) worked with him daily. By the end of the year he was, no exaggeration, doing grade level work and getting straight As. …PA supported him seamlessly via distance learning. And most importantly, he learned he was SMART and CAPABLE and he knew he was cared about, personally. The staff, including directors themselves, walked alongside me as guardian and honored my voice and perspective at every step. I truly feel indebted to this incredible school.”

    Master said her fourth grader started at Partnership Academy this school year and is loving it: “His teacher cares, his special ed teacher cares, all the staff care.”

    Lisa Hendricks, executive director at Partnership Academy, told me that the school opened in 2002 with 115 students. Today it has 488.


    Maze Mansour, a New Heights Charter School parent, explained: “I enrolled my daughter in New Heights because she did not like bigger schools and she was not performing well. Since she was moved to New Heights her performance increased and she was happier with the staff. She got better one on one with the teachers and she liked that. She does not want to change this school. This school really tries to improve the kids’ morality and education.”

    Tom Kearney, a founder and executive director of New Heights, reports that the K-12 school has fluctuated between 107 and 200 enrolled students since it opened in 1993.


    Jenny Haugen wrote: “We decided to switch our oldest son to Cologne Academy midway through second grade because we couldn’t seem to get on the same page with his current school about goals, abilities, and communication between staff and ourselves. After switching to Cologne, we were quickly able to relax because we received the communication we were looking for, we were on the same page as far as goals to push for and what our son was capable of, we had an abundance of support from not only the classroom teacher and special education staff but the entire staff at Cologne, and we have now reached a point where our son doesn’t even qualify for special education services because he was pushed to the extent of his abilities and is able to navigate school and advocate for himself.”

    Lynn Peterson, the school’s executive director, reports that it opened in 2008 128 students. Today it enrolls 662.

    Liked by 1 person

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