Over the past year, school choice has become a hot political issue. Calls for increased parental choice have come from diverse sources. From political leaders such as President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner to cultural icons such as Oprah Winfrey and documentary filmmakers like Davis Guggenheim (creator of the school-choice documentary "Waiting for Superman") to singers such as John Legend, all across the country people are "waking up" to the idea of school choice. But what does school choice mean for Missouri?
School choice asks a fundamental question; who should decide where children go to school? Now, traditional public schools use a process of residential assignment wherein children are assigned to school based on where they live. Schools then reflect the characteristics of neighborhoods, which by are large are segregrated economically and racially. This is not a good thing.
Some districts attempt to rectify this situation by creating magnet schools. Magnet schools are designed to attract students from across districts (of various race and economic situation); however, almost all have some sort of academic criteria that students must meet to qualify for the school, leaving the majority of students exempt. School choice (inter-district choice, charter schools, vouchers or tuition tax credits) empowers parents to decide where their children attend school. No longer would students be restricted to their neighborhood school, a school their fmaily can afford or a school for which they qualify for admittance.
The argument that school choice programs "take money from public schools" is disingenuous at best and outright false at worst. Because the dollars follow the student, a public school district might have less money but it would have fewer students, too.
But more broadly, as eloquently described by former Milwaukee Public School Superintendent and lifelong civil rights crusader Howard Fuller, public schooling is an idea. It is the idea that we have an obligation to provide for the education of our children. People too often confuse the idea of public schooling with the mechanism that brings about that idea. If a school is educating children successfully, it is serving the public interest and accomplishing the goal of the idea of public education. There is a leap between the government providing for (that is, funding) public education and managing public education (that is, running its set of schools).
Some forms of school choice are more politically palatable than others. However, the issue of school choice is not about political popularity, it is really a question of responsibility. Who has the primary responsibility in educating children? Since the early 1900s, educators have attempted to delegate responsibility to professionals in schools and state departments of education. The state operates public schools and assigns students to attend these schools. The duty of the parent is to simply get the child to school. This status quo has been increasingly challenged because many American schools, especially in inner cities, are failing to uphold their end of the bargain. For obvious reasons, this has caused many to champion the cause of school choice for these students.
Most people fundamentally agree that students should not be trapped in perpetually failing schools. However, the argument for choice also can be made in areas where schools are doing well. School choice is not simply about how good or bad the schools are, school choice is about responsibility.
Parents and students are in the best position to make these important educational decisions for their children. As the Missouri Legislature meets to discuss various school reform options, legislators should know that taking steps to expand inter-district choice, charters, vouchers or tuition tax credits are steps in the right direction.
James V. Shuls is a doctoral academy fellow and Michael McShane is a distinguished doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Both are Missouri natives.