How Does School Choice Impact Our Neighbourhood Schools?
As an educator and a parent of three year-olds, I often get asked the question, “where are you going to send your kids to school?”. This still tends to catch me by surprise and my response is always… “the one down the road”. This often leads to another series of questions like “you’re NOT sending them to _____?” or “really? you think that is a good school?”. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague that lives nearby and when I responded with “the school right near our house”, she was so relieved as she said that, as a parent, she was feeling so much pressure to choose to drive her children to another school outside her neighbourhood and that by “just” having her children attend her neighbourhood school, she was doing them a disservice.
These conversations lead me to ask, “when did we start thinking that schools in our own neighbourhoods were not ‘good enough’?” When did we think that going to school with kids in our neighbourhood was only an option if you could not (or do not) choose to go to another school?
Choice is a form of power and I completely understand how parents want the power to choose what we feel is best for our children. I also know that we want our children engaged in school and when a specialized program across town can offer this, it because an enticing option. I am concerned, though, about our neighbourhood schools. I am concerned about our communities. What impact does school choice have on the health of our communities if some or many of the children and youth do not attend school there? If our children spend the majority of time outside of our communities, will they have as much pride and ownership over our communities?
I don’t like to romanticize the past but I will for a moment. I grew up in a small town where we had only one option and that was to attend Coquihalla Elementary. Was it a great school? Absolutely. Were there issues there? Absolutely. The school was the hub of the neighbourhood. If there was an event, every kid in the community was involved and people took pride in the community. There was no statements said to my parents like “wow, you are just going to send him to that school?”. The best part of it all for me was that all my friends and every kid down the road went to school there.
One thing I have heard people say to me is that “our neighbourhood school has so many troubled families and kids… I want my child to be in a less stressful environment.” I get that and I can respect that; however, these same troubled families and children are in our communities… they are OUR children too. At the far end of the spectrum, the impacts of decisions like this can be seen in many neighbourhoods in the US (and some in Canada) in which many people with money and access choose to drive their child to a different school… and the community school becomes a school with mostly families with high financial (and often other) stressors. This can lead (and has led) to a large inequity of educational programs and opportunities for students (just google the debate on charter schools and vouchers in the US).
I understand there are situations in which a school cannot provide a child with the services he/she needs and the district and families can choose to transport the child to a different school to access more services. I also know that there are some children for whom the current structures and education system does not work. I can completely respect that as some students have a very difficult time experiencing success at school without options for extra services and more flexible environments.
School choice and market theory in education seem to be a solution many districts are forced to provide. If they do not provide this, families can (and do) opt to leave the district and, on a large scale, can a significant impact on the financial well being of the district. The BC Ministry of Education promotes school options for parents but, to me, this seems like a slippery slope. In a recent conversation with admin colleagues from different schools, it was stated, “it’s like we have ended up competing with each other… and families seem to be always seeking a ‘better’ school to try.” To provide what some families want, many districts have created specialized schools and academies to try to attract students (and beat out other schools/districts in the competition for students). By doing this, neighbourhood schools often lose students and staff with strengths in certain areas. For example, if we have a school that specialized in music education, they will attract many students and teachers with strengths in music. How does this impact the music programs in other schools? How does this impact the music education of the students who cannot access the specialized school? If we have a school that specializes in trades and it attracts those with interests in trades, how does this impact the trades programs of our neighbourhood schools? There are some that state that providing school choice is a key strategy to better meet the needs of all learners as they can access more specialized programs and become more engaged as their education will be tied more to their interests. However, when we look beyond the surface, if not ALL students can be provided with this access, how does this impact our neighbourhood schools? Do our community schools become schools for those who do not choose other schools or for those who cannot access the programs at other schools? Can we do both? Can we have specialized programs in some schools AND maintain effective options for students within our neighbourhood schools?
I am not blaming school districts for providing school choice as I think they have been forced to try to compete with each other for students and left with having to offer school choice as they try to service the needs of the families within their catchments (I cannot imagine the ongoing dilemmas faced by superintendents and boards of education). I also recognize that sometimes this competition has led to innovations within the schools and districts (although I would argue that if we spent more time collaborating than competing, innovation could be even higher). I also do not blame, nor do I have anything against, parents who choose other schools and try to provide the best education for their child. I do think, however, that we are on a path that is hard to stop and this worries me about the future of our neighbourhood schools. I realize some parents do a ton of research on schools; there are also some that make choices about schools based on test scores, rankings, neighbourhood incomes, school structures, and reputations without ever having set foot in the schools within our own neighbourhoods. School choice is everywhere in BC (apart from some rural districts) and North America so I am not trying to challenge every school district in the western world. My questions and concerns about school choice is a concern not about districts and people but about what long term impact this might have on our schools down the road. Once we have opened the gates to market theory in education and more and more school choice, academies, and specialized schools, how can we possibly go back? So if school choice is here to stay, then how do we work to provide effective opportunities in our neighbourhood schools so they are not just the default option? How do we provide equitable access to choice schools?
Many families (and voters) want the ability to choose the best education for their child. School districts have a role to listen to their communities. But what long term effect does driving our children outside of their communities have on our neighbourhood schools and our communities as a whole?
I have stated some of my opinions but I also wonder if I am being a traditionalist here? Will my views change in the coming years? Has this school choice bus already left the garage? Have we already moved beyond the idea of a “neighbourhood school”? Am I participating in school choice as I choose to send my kids to the school closest to where we live? Many of us commute to work and are often more connected to people outside of our communities (through work and social media)… so am I putting too much emphasis on community?
I don’t know the answer to these questions and I do not have children currently in the school system but I do know that, in a few years, I will proudly send my kids to the same school as our neighbour’s kids attended… the school down the road.
What are your thoughts?
Note: in my Master’s of Educational Leadership program at the University of British Columbia, we were always challenged and encouraged to reflect upon current trends in western education; market theory/school choice was one topic that was continually critiqued and discussed. For a more academic post I wrote in 2011 on school choice, click here.