Why our prospective ED secretary shouldn’t use school choice as a panacea for our ‘square pegs’

I’ve been procrastinating about writing this post. Why? Because while I believe all people should speak their truths, I’m cautious about doing so when it comes to school choice and my kids. Let me be frank: My truth is that of a white, passing-as-privileged suburban mom (my husband and I are self-employed – so we’re honestly not as privileged as our zip code suggests).

Privilege isn’t the station I was born to, but it’s the circle I now operate in. I know that my experience doesn’t reflect those of families living in poor neighborhoods with dilapidated schools. For them, being able to go to a school with quality education is a lifeline. I get that. Growing up poor, education was the lifeline for me too.

Yet right now I’m concerned that it’s choice, not education, we’re all focused on. This is because, of course, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos, a major school choice advocate, for U.S. Secretary of Education. My two cents about choice is not from the point of view of a researcher or education advocate but from that of a mother who choiced out of her top-rated neighborhood school. The charter school we choiced into for my oldest son is filled with families who did the same, since our school district and the surrounding districts all have reputations for fine schools.

In my world most families don’t want to choice out, yet a shocking amount of them do. I can imagine that people might conjure images of us helicopter moms yanking our kids from schools on a whim in search of that bigger (smaller?), better school. It’s not like that. I’ve had countless conversations with fellow parents about the anxiety they felt about jumping ship on the neighborhood school. The fact is, most people like their neighborhoods and want their kids to go to school down the street. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually harrowing and disruptive for the entire family–especially, of course, the child.

For me, I felt at wits end to find something different for my son. Another mom who was in the same situation described our neighborhood school as “outstanding if your child is a round peg. Impossible if you have a square peg for a kid.” My son is a square peg.

Many years ago, I volunteered as a tutor in a homeless shelter for women and children in Los Angeles. I met mothers who had their children out by 6 a.m. and took three or four buses just to get the kids to their schools by 8 a.m. Now, surprisingly, I’m surrounded by middle class parents who usually don’t take the bus but are essentially doing the same thing. I know a doctor who got up at 5:30 a.m. and drove her son 30 miles one way to school each morning – and then, of course, had to do it again each afternoon after his football practice even though it meant she had to cut her office hours.

I’ve met an interior designer in Pasadena who got up before dawn and jumped through insane transportation hoops–including hooking up with a car pool posse in Larchmont Village– just to transport her daughter to school in West Los Angeles each morning. That’s about 25 miles in unbearable traffic each way. Parents drive their children from Brentwood to my area (at least 35 miles one way) to attend a school near me, and I’ve met parents who also do the reverse drive.

My point is that choice–which in some cases can also be described as parents doing crazy things just to get their kids to and from the “right” school–is an everyday occurrence here.

Even though we avail ourselves of choice for one son, I continue to question the sanity in merely mixing kids around, causing parents and kids to spend these exorbitant amounts of time on the road (and we can’t forget, too, there is an environmental impact). And I don’t see much discussion about how taking a child out of his neighborhood has consequences. Neighborhood friends often drift away. Events and playdates are all the way across town. And the subsequent middle school and high school an elementary school kid chooses will likely depend on his new friends and may, again, be all the way across town instead of the convenient one in which you’re zoned.

Reading those sentences, the drawbacks may seem inconsequential. But in a parenting boots-on-the-ground way, I’ve witnessed high lifestyle costs associated with choice.

I tell everyone we’re not sorry we left our neighborhood school, because at the time we felt we had to. But with more years under my parenting belt, I now understand that choice involves serious pluses and just as serious minuses. More important, I truly question any education policy that relies so heavily on choice. Some researchers also question it.

Researchers from Berkeley and Columbia University who looked at the effects of school choice in Chile, where a voucher program went into effect in 1981, found “no evidence that choice improved average educational outcomes as measured by test scores, repetition rates, and years of schooling.” Their study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Economics, found, however, that Chile’s voucher program led to increased sorting, as the best public school students left for the private sector.

What I believe is that choice should never be talked about like it’s a radical solution. At best, it’s Plan B, a Band-Aid. For me, a true solution would look like this: Neighborhood schools that safely embrace and educate neighborhood round and square pegs, and maybe even the octagon too.


Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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