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School Choice

You Can’t Have Quality Educational Opportunities and Cap School Choice

I’ll just come out and say it: You can’t be for expanding access to quality educational opportunities and be in favor of capping charter schools. You can’t malign the supposed cherry-picking tendencies of charter schools while at the same time extolling the virtues of selective “public” magnet schools. And you can’t fight against access to school choice while at the same time buying or renting a home at least in part due to its ZIP-code aligned school district.

But very often, this is exactly what we progressives do.

As someone who unabashedly understands himself as progressive, if not downright socialist, I am chagrined to the point of insanity with the ways other progressives and so-called supporters of public education toe the party line proclaiming charter schools enemies of meritocracy, agents of segregation and conspiring union busters allied with money-grubbing profiteers seeking to make quick profits on the backs of children.

The latest in the calls for so-called equitable access to education is the leveling of access to elite public schools like Stuyvesant in New York, while at the same time capping the growth of charter schools.

The ideas, so they would seem, are that by eliminating entrance tests, and in doing so eliminating all of the problematic injustices that come with such a test, access to high-quality education would be more equitable.

This idea has already garnered its fair share of detractors.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Bill de Blasio, New York’s progressive mayor, wants the elite schools to be more racially balanced and has called for replacing the entrance exam with what amounts to a racial quota system. This year, as usual, Asian-Americans were awarded more than half of all slots, even though they comprise only about 16% of the city’s public-school students. Understandably, Asian parents oppose the mayor’s proposal.

Meanwhile, Robert Pondiscio has argued that,

A sane and equity-minded public policy would seek to maximize elite educational opportunities and increase their number, not to ration them or water them down, and would seek to extend them to every qualified low-income student who can do the work.

To me, the arguments over Stuyvesant, entrance tests and charter schools all tend to boil down to an educational McGuffin: a fraudulent low-hanging fruit of progressive opportunism that catches our eye, while doing nothing to address the root causes of the rot that continues to infest the larger system, namely the corallative nature of one’s wealth with one’s access to quality educational opportunity.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

We all, if we can, buy access to quality education. Some of us pay school tuition. Others pay for test prep to access elite “public” schools like Stuyvesant. Many of us, myself included, pay rent or mortgages for houses located in ZIP codes with access to quality neighborhood schools. Not for nothing do real estate agents often name a houses’ local elementary school alongside its square footage.

If we really want to work for equitable access to quality education, rather than just react to the latest scandal, we need to get serious and look at our own neighborhoods.

Why is it that a student zoned to a school in West Philadelphia is apportioned $14,000 for her education, while another student just over the city line is apportioned $28,000?  

Because we’ve made it so.

With state budgeters failing oftentimes to meet what they spent before the Great Recession in 2008, it has fallen on local towns and cities to fill their educational coffers.

So, what happens when local education budgets are driven by local taxes and wealth?

Easy.

The rich get to ride the school-to-college pipeline, and the poor get trained for prison.

The game is rigged.

My fellow progressives, charter schools are not the enemy. Magnet schools are not the enemy. The enemy is our continued perpetuation in a system that largely requires wealth in order to access quality education.

While I wait for us to blow that whole system apart, let’s not stand in the way of families trying to give for their children what we have so guiltlessly purchased for our own.

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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