Friday, June 24, 2011

Muse of the Week: School Choice

The Oregon legislature recently passed a series of education bills that now await the signature (or veto) of the governor. The bills ranged from a proposal for mandatory all-day kindergarten to a unification of the state's educational administrative structure that places all phases of education, Headstart through graduate school, under one board.

One of the most controversial proposals was for greater school choice. If the governor signs this particular bill, which was strongly supported by the Republican Party in our evenly-divided legislature, it will become easier for parents to request a transfer for their children or to take advantage of options like online charter schools.

This was controversial for many reasons, one of which was that one of the chief sponsors is closely affiliated with Oregon Connections Academy, the largest online charter school in the state. Many argue that this will further impoverish districts serving students who are not fortunate enough to have parents actively advocating for them. Others contend that this legislation will allow for better allocation of resources, with students able to transfer into under-populated districts or take advantage of nontraditional learning options.

I recognize that I sit in a position of privilege; the kiddo will attend a well-regarded school in a well-regarded district this fall, simply because we are blessed to live in the catchment area. That said, I do have serious reservations about the capability of this new system to meet the needs of all students, and especially of those who lack advocates.

What I find most interesting, however, is how the question of school choice represents a change in conservative educational philosophy. Until the past few decades, the "neighborhood school" represented the paragon of a properly organized educational system. Proponents argued that local schools, with a student population confined to the surrounding community, would best serve as community centers and locus points for the development of civic pride and involvement. These were the children who played together in the streets; these were the families who passed each other on evening walks. A neighborhood school was the best way to organize a strong, healthy community.

The problem? Communities across the United States tended to be segregated, whether according to the dictates of legalized segregation or via the more subtle (and in many ways more insidious) path of "de facto" segregation. Segregated communities generated segregated schools. Segregated schools tended to receive very different levels of funding and support. As society began to recognize this as an injustice, steps began to ensure that public schools became more integrated. (In the South, of course, legalized segregation meant that in many cases, African American students were actually required to pass white schools en route to their segregated ones; outside the South, de facto segregation meant that color lines tended to more closely follow settlement patterns.)

White southerners' opposition to desegregated schools is well documented. These were the origins of the school choice movement, with academies sprouting across the region geared toward establishing a private option for those unwilling to submit to integration. Outside the South, the story was more complex; citizens across the nation, from Boston to, yes, Portland, protested the bussing of students away from their neighborhood schools in order to ensure a more representative cross section of the population in each institution. School choice? That was the last thing these citizens, many of whom increasingly began to identify as Republican, were interested in. They didn't want their students transferred; they wanted them to attend the schools of their neighborhoods. They felt the central structures of their communities were being torn apart.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for these citizens. They, too, were victims of an institutional order that created these segregated communities, even as they sometimes had benefited from their advantages. (Even more complex, some of these citizens came from white ethnic groups that had themselves suffered discrimination.) One of the results of this struggle was that more and more white Americans moved to the suburbs, where they enrolled their children in entirely different school districts outside the purview of urban bussing networks -- districts that tended to be far more racially uniform. Another result was growing interest in the idea of school choice. Once the battle for the neighborhood school was lost, one way to create some new semblance of a community was to organize institutions based upon religion, educational approach or other affiliations.

Now, school choice is a significant priority among many Republican politicians and conservative activists. It's worthwhile to note, however, that the progressive bastion we know as Portland might want to peer a bit more deeply into its own ideals and motivations. People have moved into old Portland neighborhoods in droves, pushing up real estate prices and and beginning to push out historically black communities, among others. Are they willing to send their children to neighborhood schools? The enrollment figures at Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools would suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, the high school chosen for closure this spring in Portland Public Schools was Marshall, chief rival of my beloved Madison Senators and the school serving many pushed out of gentrifying regions of the metro area.

Again, as I make these observations I do so from a point of privilege. I would not point the finger of blame too hurriedly in any one direction. (Well, except at the dyed-in-the-wool segregationists, of course.) The question of how best to serve the students of Oregon or of the nation as a whole is astoundingly complex, based upon a multitude of institutional factors. Without a proper understanding of the history behind these struggles, though, the decisions we do make are doomed to failure.

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