School Choice Advocates Should Visit Some Schools

As I have continued to research the “school choice” movement, it seems that advocates often simply don’t have a very good idea of what modern comprehensive schools look like. The truth is that large schools often offer a model of choice–right within the school.

Mike Petrilli of the very pro-school choice Fordham Institute argues that school choice is appropriate for suburban schools and students because he believes that there are three types of affluent parents: Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges; Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little; The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world.

Setting aside the almost absurd caricature of parents Petrilli created, his list of types of parents does little to advance his case that suburban schools need to offer more choice. The truth is that contemporary, large, suburban schools offer students exactly the kind of choice he calls for–from rigorous college prep to vocational training, from arts-focused education to career preparation academies.

That’s what large suburban schools do. They create a wide variety of programs for their students, because effective school administrators recognize that students need to be reached through different approaches and presented with distinct opportunities. And they manage to do it in accredited institutions, a requirement that  conservative Montana lawmakers seem content to dispense with.

At my high school, students have exactly the options that Petrilli argues choice would provide.  Students take the AP exam in 8-10 subjects annually at the same time we offer electives in the academic and business fields Petrilli argues for. Even better, students don’t have to choose at the age of 14 which field to pursue; many of my students take the rigorous preparation the mythical Tiger Moms demand at the same time they pursue art, music, and business.

The truth is that the broad choices a comprehensive public school can provide is the best kind of choice for students–one that doesn’t lock them into a field of study before they’re ready to make the choice and one that doesn’t constrain their options, but expands them

The state has even created an effective option for students to take courses simply not offered at home in the form of the Montana Digital Academy. Want to take AP Literature? Oceanography? Native American studies? Creative Writing? Students can do it there, expanding their range of choices.

That’s the situation here in Montana. Large school districts are providing the kind of choice that advocates call for already–and they’re doing it while educating students of all different ability levels and interests. Smaller districts, with declining populations and wide distances between them, are doing their best to bridge the gap with online offerings. Those communities will simply never be able to affordably achieve the “choice” goals that advocates are calling for.

And therein lies the problem for Rick Hill’s call for school choice in Montana. Our large schools are already doing it, and our small students cannot benefit from what advocates call for. If Rick Hill really wants to improve choice for Montana kids, he should focus on ensuring adequate funding that will expand student options, not embracing untested, unsupported “choice” models that simply don’t meet the needs of our students.