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Topic: I. Realities and Myths of "Choice"
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
I. Realities and Myths of "Choice"
Posted: Oct 12, 2013 5:18 PM
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From @ THE CHALK FACE, Monday, September 2, 2013. See
Microtel Inns, Dairy Queens, St. Sensible and Detroit Country Day:
Realities and Myths of "Choice"

By Michael Paul Goldenberg

EDUCATION WEEK recently published "Calculator Use on Exams to Shift
With Common Core," by Erik W. Robelen. [See
] In reply to some discussion about the article on a private Facebook
page, Wendy Hart wrote,

" I think the real issue here isn't what is the proper use of a
calculator, but that it is being dictated by the testing consortia.
Our main point of opposition is that CCSS (not just the standards,
but the whole ball of wax) takes away local control. By.removing
local control you take away the ability of the parents and teachers
to choose to do different things. It is a fundamental principle that
if I can choose only one option, I have no choice. This is what makes
so much of what is divisive in education, we don't allow for the
differences. One size fits all is the antithesis of liberty."

I fundamentally agree with her comment, particularly if we're looking
at "choice" as variety - a menu of options, and different restaurants
with different menus. For a very long time, that seemed to be fine
with most people. But periodically, "experts" launch a fear campaign,
and try to use it to get standardization. Maybe that makes sense for
some things: fast food and chain motels, etc., promise
standardization (predictability; no surprises!) in exchange for
innovation, experimentation, imagination, etc. Safety over potential
for variety, change, growth, life.

I understand that. When it comes to motels, I'm likely to go with
safe. When it comes to food when I'm out of town, I'm more interested
in . . . interesting. I have a nose for great, cheap, ethnic
restaurants and given time and opportunity, I'll seek them out and
take my chances.

We could extend this to many other situation, but the point has been
made. Obviously, some folks want safety every time. Some want risk
every time. Most of us are somewhere along the spectrum on different

When it comes to education, we're being told not only that safety,
standardization, predictability, etc. are what is most desirable for
everyone (a doubtful premise) but that these things are also
attainable if we'd give into the corporate profiteering deformers.
Many of us are rightly skeptical of that premise as well. But the
most absurd rider to the second premise is that we can get those
things without addressing anything except schools, curriculum,
assessment, teaching, and, of course, accountability therein. What we
most decidedly do NOT have to address ,on this view, is America's
economic, social, geographic, and related inequities. Or to be more
specific: poverty, discrimination and their ill effects.

The "no excuses, poverty doesn't matter" philosophy of education
deform is one of the most outlandish and self-serving imaginable. It
allows people already benefiting from a badly skewed distribution of
wealth, one in which a very few people are born into unimaginable
luxury and affluence, and a significant percentage are born into
abject want, to further rig the game and accrue an even larger share
of money and power. And the neat trick is that they do while blaming
the problems the system they love has created on some of the very
people who dedicate their lives to trying to make a positive
difference: professional educators.

In the corporate deform narrative, the American people cannot trust
public school teachers (and particularly must mistrust their unions).
Once again, we see a divide and conquer strategy being used by
America's oligarchs, pitting a majority of have nots and barely haves
against a hard-working portion of society that is perceived as having
become too left-wing for the comfort of the rulers.

But I digress. What was I talking about again? Oh, yes. . . CHOICE!

Well, not so fast. You see there's choice, and then there's CHOICE.

It seems that any conversation about public education these days
sooner or later centers on the OTHER kind of choice, the sort that
deformers love to promote. That's the "choice" that they claim is
being denied to inner-city poor children and parents (mostly of
color). [Note: last I heard, there are rural poor people, many of
whom are white, but they don't seem to be much in the conversation
when deformers get to deforming. I think it has something to do with
geography, but also with the neoliberal/neoconservative fondness for
co-opting issues and language traditionally associated with '60s
liberalism, particularly around issues of social justice and
ethnicity. The "choice" argument, as I'll discuss below, has some
serious problems when you start talking about folks living in areas
with low population density].

The two magic bullets of deform that are supposed to solve social
inequality, slanted playing fields, and ethnic injustice are charter
schools and vouchers. On my view, charters as currently construed by
the deform crowd, are a nice way to make a lot of money without
providing a quality product for most customers (I'm aware of the
history of the charter movement, that it was sensible and
well-intentioned, and that some good schools, even excellent ones,
emerged as a result. But those who wish to point only to such places
had best come to grips with the reality of what the movement became
when the profiteers stepped in). The system set up to oversee
charters in many states appears to be crafted by charter owners, for
charters owners, so help them anyone in the legislature looking for
some fat campaign contributions. Ohio is a particularly egregious
case, as those who follow the story of David Brennan and White Hat
Management's virtual purchase of the Ohio State Legislature are aware.

The corruption and mediocre performance of many charter schools is
well-documented, so let me focus here instead on vouchers, the true
wet dream of many rich people, reactionaries, and privatizers. These
folks claim that if only we gave every student (or parent/guardian) a
voucher good for the amount the state pays a public school district
for educating that student and let the individual families have a
choice as to where to use that money, the ensuing competition (you
know, "the free market") would force public schools to compete for
neighborhood kids they used to be able to take for granted as
students as long as they were of school age, didn't drop out, and
lived in the local catchment area. The narrative is that bad schools
(which oddly enough always seem to be located in high-poverty areas,
a coincidence no deformer is interested in addressing) are filled
with lazy, union-protected teachers who haven't the slightest
interest in teaching their students a thing. Without the threat of
competition, these slugs would be able to continue ripping the public
off, failing to serve their students, and collecting those fat
paychecks that we all know teachers receive whether they deserve them
or not.

Meanwhile, parents and kids need not wait for these schools to fix
themselves, because with those vouchers in hand, they are free to go
to a broad range of better schools - other public schools that accept
students from out of their district (never mind that it's already
possible to do that without vouchers in many parts of the country, or
that many of the districts that do accept outside-of-district
students do so because they need more money and are not necessarily
better than the student's home district); any number of fine,
conveniently located Catholic schools (which some advocates in the
Math Wars like to refer to as "the local St. Sensible," as if we all
know that Catholic schools are sure to offer children - regardless of
race, color, or creed - a first-class education! That most
African-Americans are not Catholic (nor are most of those rural poor
white kids that the "choice" advocates aren't apparently terribly
concerned about) seems to be irrelevant to these advocates, though
personally I find both separation of church and state issues lurking
about here, as well as the need to question that it's fine for black
parents to have to potentially compromise their religious beliefs in
order to get an ostensibly better education for their kids, while no
education deformers would be sanguine about having to take that
option for their own children; and finally, those private, secular
schools that many wealthy and near-wealthy parents covet for their
own children.

It's this last "choice" that I have tried to debunk for well over a
decade when arguing with voucher advocates. I have repeatedly
challenged them to explain how a typical black student in, say,
northeastern Detroit, would manage to attend, say, Detroit Country
Day School, an upscale prep school located in Beverly Hills, MI (you
can't make this stuff up). When I say "typical," I specifically
eliminating the likelihood that the student in question possesses the
basketball skills of a Chris Webber or Shane Battier, both of whom
are African-American males who graduated from Country Day, and had
all-American careers at University of Michigan and Duke University,
respectively, and successful professional basketball careers (Battier
played on the current two-time NBA championship club, the Miami Heat).

Absent such unusual talent, there is no evidence that the Detroit
Country Day Schools of America are champing at the bit to recruit or
admit children of color from the inner cities. And it is crucial to
note several key facts that give the lie to the choice argument.
First, there is no obligation whatsoever for a private school to
accept any given child. They are free to pick and choose as they see
fit and are not required to explain their admission choices. While
there may be K-12 private schools that seek diversity and practice
admissions without regard to race, color, creed, politics, or, most
significantly, income, the ones with the CHOICE are those running the
school, not those applying for it. That seems to slip past the deform
crowd in these conversations, which is odd given that not a few of
them attended such schools. You'd think they'd be a bit more familiar
with whether their classmates came from and whether there were a good
number of poor black kids in their classes.

But let's say that there are such fair-minded schools and a
hypothetical non-athletic poor child of color applies, voucher in
hand, and is admitted. Oops, turns out that the full cost (tuition,
books, fees, uniforms, etc., not to mention transportation - see
below) is considerably more than the amount of the voucher. Of
course, some schools of this caliber are sufficiently well-endowed by
wealthy alumni contributions that they can give financial aid to some
applicants. But will that frequently be bestowed upon inner-city poor
children of color? Won't there be plenty of lower-middle class kids
who need that money? Won't they have academic advantages from being
of a higher economic background that will lead to complaints about
"affirmative action," etc.? Will the alumni like the notion of
bringing in a lot of poor kids? Poor kids of color? Poor kids of
color from the GHETTO?

And then there are the issues of transportation. Detroit Country Day
School isn't in "the country," but it isn't in Detroit, either. The
lower school is in West Bloomfield, a mere 26 miles from the
predominantly Mexican area in southwest Detroit, and a comfy 22.5
miles from mostly black Osborn High School in the northeast side of
the city. The upper school is in Beverly Hills, MI (you can't make
these things up), a cozy 18 miles from Osborn and 21.5 miles from
southwest Detroit. So not a lot of kids will be walking to school if
they go to Detroit Country Day. And of course, getting public
transportation from those areas to the suburbs is not a simple
matter. This is, after all, the Motor City area. Public
transportation has been historically eschewed in favor of the
almighty automobile. So those lower school and middle school kids,
and high schoolers not yet of full-licensing age had best have
someone with wheels and the time to take them to and from school. And
of course, every inner-city poor high schooler has a car.

Now, imagine those poor white kids located out in rural America. How
are they getting to these lovely, exclusive private schools, assuming
there are any in the vicinity? Well, okay, maybe they don't matter so
much. They should have known better than to live in rural Montana and
expect America's entrepreneurial class to have miracle cures at their

While I think reasonable people who've not previously considered
these issues are mostly willing to admit that this "choice" business
is trickier than simply giving vouchers to parents, I know from
bitter experience that such arguments have no impact on the true
believers, let alone on the folks who are heavily invested
financially in the charter and voucher movements. For them, choice
means that the rich get free choice the poor get whatever choices the
wealthy and powerful say they can have. And the reality is that those
are very often not viable, not very appealing, or not efficacious.

But the propaganda will keep flowing. "Choice" is one of those words,
like "freedom" and "democracy," that few Americans understand very
clearly, but they know DAMNED well that they want it and that it's
their God-given right as citizens of the greatest country in history.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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