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The masquerade of school choice: a parent’s story

Patricia MacCorquodale (Photo by David Scott Allen)
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President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos say their primary focus in education policy will be to expand school choice, providing alternatives to traditional public schools. DeVos has been clear about her view of traditional public schools, calling them “a dead end” in 2015 and this past week saying that student outcomes at U.S. schools are so bad that she isn’t  “sure how they could get a lot worse.”

DeVos: Outcomes at U.S. schools are so bad, they probably can’t get much worse

Though championed by Trump and DeVos, school choice is highly controversial around the country. Choice supporters say that parents have a right to send their children to any school they want and the public should pay for it, especially for those families fleeing troubled traditional public schools. Supporters of the traditional system say that charter and voucher schools don’t on average perform any better than public schools, and often do worse; are not held to the same standards; are not transparent about their operations; often pick and choose the students they want; and drain vital resources from traditional schools that accept all students.

For those who support school choice, Arizona is seen as a big success, with virtual schools; hundreds of charter schools. which are funded by the public but operated privately; magnet schools; and private and religious schools, which enroll students with public dollars made available through tax credit and voucher-like programs. Some 20 percent of Arizona’s students are educated through school choice programs, most of them in charter schools.

This telling essay details an Arizona parent’s story about trying to wade through the “choice” system to find the right school for her daughter. She is Patricia MacCorquodale, a sociologist and professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on women’s careers in science, engineering and legal professions, gender and human sexuality and educational aspirations and achievement. She stepped down last year as the inaugural dean of the Honors College at the University or Arizona. MacCorquodale  is also a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

What the public isn’t told about high-performing charter schools in Arizona

By Patricia MacCorquodale

My adventure with school choice began with a search for a school for our daughter entering first grade.

I started at a highly regarded private elementary school. Armed with a list of questions, I went to the school, toured the facility, visited a classroom and met with the principal. She assured me that they had plenty of spaces open in first grade and suggested that I bring my daughter to spend a morning at the school in the coming weeks.  “I’ll bring her tomorrow,” I said, and I did.

My daughter K.T. had a wonderful visit.  She loved the spacious, comfortable classrooms, engaged in fun activities, and made lots of “friends.”  Imagine my surprise when I picked her up at noon, and was told by the principal that all the spaces for first grade were full.  I pressed about a waiting list and was told that they did not keep waiting lists as so few children left the school.  The principal had looked surprised that morning upon seeing my dark-skinned, dark-haired Latina daughter arrive with her blonde, blue-eyed mother.

President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promoted school choice during a visit to a private school.  What they don’t understand is that school choice camouflages discrimination based on race, ethnicity, social class and ability.

Why the Trump/DeVos visit to a Catholic school is so unusual — and what it really means

My daughter attended two private, two public and four charter schools during her K-12 education; the search for each one was extensive. With 547 charter schools and 480 private schools operating in Arizona, there is a lot of school choice.

Private schools, including religiously based ones, are not legally obliged to admit or enroll students.  They have the choice to decide which students they prefer and do not have to explain their reasoning.   The admission process for the private school that we visited included a detailed application, recent photograph, interview and teacher recommendation—a lot of material upon which to base their decision. Test scores and placement tests were required for higher grades.  The choice was theirs.

Next, I tried a public magnet school that attracted students with a strong Spanish language program, international elements in the curriculum, and an emphasis on science and sustainability. After a tour, I learned that I was late for the school’s admissions cycle, but they had a waiting list.  The principal assured me, “We have several university faculty whose children attend our school.  I’m certain that we will find a space for your daughter.”  He paused and continued, “What we don’t need is more of those Mexican students.”  At that point, I took out a photo of our Latina daughter, and the conversation came to an embarrassing lull.  I left realizing that this would not be a good fit.

K.T. ended up at a small, private elementary school.  It didn’t have a special curriculum or spacious, innovative classrooms and facilities.  Its commitment was to diversity and a strong school-based scholarship program made a creative and caring education available to all.

Our third adventure focused on middle school.  Our local public school was very large, over 600, and its students’ academic performance was rated “C” by the Arizona Department of Education.  I sought a charter school focused on academics.  Charter schools in Arizona are mandated to serve all students, including those with special needs.  They can control their enrollment through capping class size and they must provide an “equitable system” for allocating spaces available if the number of applicants exceeds spaces.

Study: Private school vouchers favored by DeVos don’t offer real advantage over public schools

Our daughter applied during open enrollment and was admitted.  The school could not use entrance examinations, but they had placement tests.  Our daughter scored lower in math than reading so the school recommended that she take a summer school class to get ready for the fall.  Her teacher spent much of the time letting K.T. know that math was not her strong suit, she should consider jobs in the arts, she missed earning key concepts in elementary school, etc.  The teacher and counselor reinforced these ideas by telling me that she would be starting behind other students, her self-confidence would suffer, she would have trouble making friends and fitting in, etc. By the end of the summer, we were counseled out of her enrollment.

Charter schools are designed for different groups of students and demonstrate mixed results in terms of outcomes, but schools with a rigorous, academic curriculum positively improve students’ math scores. However, insofar as they are able to influence the admission process, then they may serving a selective group of academically prepared and talented students.  How well do they do with a broad cross section? Would my daughter have risen to the challenge of the curriculum and been inspired by their excellent teachers?

I navigated the school choice maze as a university professor with good income, flexible hours, reliable transportation, and a strong parent network. Imagine the process of school choice for parents of students attending failing schools, with limited income, or relying on public transportation.

Don’t let school choice trick you. The best way to provide quality across social class, race and ethnicity is to invest in public schools.

A disturbing look at how charter schools are hurting a traditional school district