Is School Choice a Bad Thing?

 Recently, I read an article in Civil Beat about the closure of small private schools in Hawaii.  I agree with the author that for some students, these schools are right for them, and they have opportunities they might not have in larger private schools. And yes, we need students to have choices in the kind of school that best meets their needs.

I have been thinking about school choice for awhile now. I know those words bring on strong negative feelings because generally speaking, it means allowing parents of children in “failing” schools to choose another school to attend, often a private for for-profit charter school. The thinking behind school choice is that “failing” schools will have to improve or they will eventually have to close down. The reality is that the neighborhood public school is often the only option for families. There are too many barriers to transferring or registering children and taking them to another school. 

We, in Hawaii, are fortunate that we have a statewide system that does not rely on county property taxes to fund our schools. Our system is more equitable than other states in the country in that funds are distributed using a weighted student formula. So schools that service students in lower income areas or who have a higher number of English Language Learners, for example, receive more funding per pupil to address challenges. Unfortunately, though, the equity divide still exists. We only have to look at schools in higher income areas; they receive much more support from their families, and students have many more opportunities than those in low income areas. I remember the disparity between fundraisers at different schools I worked at; the difference in the amount raised was eye-opening. 

When I was a principal, there were three elementary schools in our military community. I often dreamed about how we might provide our families with choice. The focus would depend on input from the school and the community, but as an example, one school could focus on STEM, another on the arts,  or dual-language instruction, or blended learning. Teachers could transfer to the school that matches their area of expertise, and families could choose which school would be the best fit for their children. Unfortunately, we never  had that discussion, we got so inundated with other tasks, and principals came and left for other schools.  

I’ve often thought about why we couldn’t fit the student to the school and not expect all students to fit in at their school. Some will need a smaller environment to gain confidence and to thrive. Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? It really depends on the student and what they need at that moment in their life. Students have many options when they choose a college or university to attend. Why don’t they have that option in elementary, middle, or high school? 

I realize that there is no easy answer to this question of school choice, but in this time of changes, maybe we need to have that discussion. Although charter schools do offer choices to parents, they do not necessarily address the needs of a school community or complex area. Let’s stop thinking of school choice in the way others have portrayed it, as a way to steer money from “failing” public schools. Let’s think about school choice as a way to address the needs of students so they can be confident contributors to our community.