CURMUDGUCATION: Choice and Guarantees


The slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

Choice and Guarantees

You are visiting friends, and at suppertime, they give you two options. “We can go to Restaurant A,” they say, “and there will be only one choice on the menu, but I can guarantee you that it will be awesome. Or we can go to Restaurant B where there will be plenty of choices, but it’s entirely possible they will all be pretty lousy.”

Which restaurant would you select?

Some reformy choice advocates insist that Restaurant B is the better option. These choicers insist that what parents want is choice. I think not. I think what parents (and students and neighbors and taxpayers) want is secure knowledge that public tax money s being well-spent, and that when a student walks into a classroom, that student is being met by a well-trained, capable professional educator who is going to meet that child where the child is, and do their best to lift that child up.

Rick Smith, in a recent conversation with Jeff Bryant, makes the point by talking about health care. If I’m sick or, say, my wife is about to give birth, I don’t want a bunch of choices of various hospitals and doctors. I want to know that the hospital I go to will be great. And then Bryant used a word that jumped out at me.

When it comes to schools, people want a guarantee.

Not choice. Not a bunch of bad options. They want a guarantee.

Guarantee is a strong word. We often talk about the promise of public education, and that’s a nice word, but a promise leaves an awful lot of wiggle room.

But guarantee. That’s strong stuff. No matter who you are. No matter where you live. No matter what your child brings to the table. We guarantee we’ll provide whatever is needed to do the job.

A guarantee isn’t just a promise that I’ll do the job right. It is a promise that if I fail, I will make it right.

There is absolutely no question that there are places, districts, schools that have failed to honor their guarantee. I don’t want to minimize that for a second. Some school “failures” have been manufactured by rigging the game and cooking the books (looking at you, test-centered “accountability’). Some school failures have been manufactured by deliberately starving public schools. Some school failures have been deliberate choices to deny Those Children their guaranteed education. And some schools have managed to fail all on their own, through some unfortunate combination of bad leadership or terrible management.

Those failures have provided an opening, a business opportunity, for champions of choice. “Instead of a renewed guarantee for the school you already have,” is the pitch, “how about a choice of other schools.” And many folks have bit on that offer because 1) their old school really has failed to live up to the guarantee and 2) they hear the word “school” (or in some cases, “public school”) and they assume that the choice school comes with its own guarantee. But many charter-choice schools come with no guarantee at all. No promise that the school will do its best to provide a great education to every single child, and definitely no promise that if the school fails, the family has an avenue to demand that the school make it right.

So instead of making a promise good, fulfilling the guarantee of a public school, choicers just offer other unguaranteed, buyer beware, good luck with that options. If the school fails a student, well, there’s the door. Except, of course, voting with your feet does not make things right.

To me it is one of the central mysteries of the choice argument– if a school is bad, why would you start to open other schools instead of fixing it?

I know one answer, which is “we tried and it just didn’t work” followed, usually, by blaming that failure on unions or teachers or deficit models of how Those People’s Families behave. No. If what you tried didn’t work, the most likely explanation is that what you tried was a bad idea, implemented by someone who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about (see also, test-centered accountability).

The other answer, which generally arrives in more coded language, is “fixing schools would cost money, not make money, and why would we spend money on Those People”?

What do we need in education?

We need to issue a clear, unequivocal guarantee to every parent, every child, every taxpayer, every citizen, that they will have a locally-run school in their community fully funded, well resourced, staffed with quality trained professionals, and well-maintained, and that every child who walks into that school will be met by caring professionals who will meet the child where she is and help guide her toward her best possible future. And if the guarantee is not being met, there will be a means to make things right.

Yes, it would be expensive. And yes, it would be most expensive in communities where there are the fewest local resources which, yes, means that you’d have to spend a bunch of tax dollars on Those People’s Children. Yes, a guarantee would require a commitment. A big commitment. A real commitment. And while that may seem hopelessly huge, we have certainly found the will– and the money– for everything from walking on the moon to grin ding away for decades of Middle Eastern military adventures.

Choice isn’t about replacing the guarantee or honoring the guarantee. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that our leaders don’t have the will to make the guarantee and stand by it. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that too many of us don’t really think Those People’s Children deserve any such guarantee (just like poor people don’t really deserve health care). Choice is not how we find our way to a Great American Education Guarantee; it is what we do instead.

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