Equity of Choice in Education

How do we give all children the opportunity to have a great education?  What public policies will help justice to flourish in our schools?  In recent years, the idea of “choice” has catalyzed much of the debate as we wrestle with vouchers, charters, and public funding.  This debate is not abstract for me.  It is unavoidable for my family as our own children prepare to enter school and we make choices about their education.  We want to love our community, and schools are right at the heart of any community.  So we have agonized over our children’s education.  Should we support the neighborhood public school?  The Christian school?  The Spanish immersion programs in the area?  The charter schools?  We live in an area and in an age where there are so many choices. That being said, my wife and I are aware that we ask these questions only because we have the luxury of resources to make such choices. 

The education of our nation’s children has always been and should always be at the center of our public conversation.  My home state of Michigan has been a battleground over charter schools and choice.  We continue to fight over how to empower the Detroit Public Schools with a cacophony of voices proposing different solutions that all emerge from different ideological approaches. Locally, my region of West Michigan has cultivated a plethora of private Christian schools and has been at the forefront of promoting school of choice initiatives for decades.  The result is a large number of private, charter, and magnet schools.  The other result, in my region, state, and nation, is an intractable series of debates.

Much is lost in our predictably dualistic debates.  On one side, I have heard people defend the public school system as sacrosanct.  There is a false assumption that anyone who questions the public schools or who promotes school of choice is inherently unconcerned about or even hostile toward the educational challenges of our most vulnerable children.  This is unfair.  Many who advocate for charter schools are doing so to assist hurting communities.  But the school of choice movement has not helped itself in this regard.  Many charters, for instance, have been rightly accused of taking advantage of or being flippant toward their communities.  Some have had an approach that borders on colonial.  Administrating a school is one thing, but taking time to listen to parents, build trust, and craft a program sensitive to a community’s needs is an entirely other matter.

...the focus is not on the quantity of choices, but the equity of choice for parents.

Often we assume that choice is simple.  But transportation, cultural values, and privilege all play a part in who benefits from the flexibility of choice.  It is easy to disregard the monumental challenges that some families face in capitalizing on school choice.  In fact, one study in New Orleans suggests that increased choice benefits those who already have benefits; “a choice-based system all by itself won’t necessarily increase equity.”  My home city of Holland has seen some of this and is engaging in some of these debates. It is right to ask the question:  Who is benefitting from all this choice?  Too often school of choice advocates have not considered this question seriously enough.

So both sides are narrow – vibrant private schooling is essential for principled pluralism to thrive in any society. This includes government support of such diversity.  The Center for Public Justice has a strong tradition of championing a distinctive approach to education, one that values family choice and the government’s impartial treatment of “diverse types of schooling.” Public school defenders often miss this.  But too often school of choice defenders ignore the actual results of the choices they promote.  They can come across as willfully ignorant about how choice is so frequently a source of escape, a flight from the very diversity they promote.  Choice helps communities to maintain their distinctive identity. But choice also has the capacity to isolate; choice can amplify the power of privileged communities.

Where do we focus our educational attention as Christians?  Our policies must have a concern for marginalized communities.  We must also have a robust network of diverse school choices.  What we are working for is what I call “equity of choice.”  To say that we should work only for equity in education ignores the rich plurality of schools we hope to foster.  To say that we should work only for choice ignores the power dynamics that shape parental decisions.  Thus I am proposing that we pepper our proposals with the language of equity of choice.  Equity and choice.  We strive for both.  This is why others in the Shared Justice community have been writing about ways to close the opportunity gap. The same principles are at work in school of choice debates. 

We have been very grateful to see a unique language immersion program begin to flourish in our city. It is called two-way bilingual immersion because the classes maintain a 50/50 split between native English and Spanish speakers.  It reflects many of the qualities of an attractional magnet school, with an intentionality that benefits many groups.  The goals are manifold: to give parents a unique educational program, to increase performance of vulnerable students, and to promote cultural sharing. This is just a small example, but it demonstrates the creative ways schools can address several community issues at once. 

Our particular Christian tradition can continue working for the cause of school choice.  However, the focus is not on the quantity of choices, but the equity of choice for parents. The push for choice, fueled by the crises in many public schools, has led toward an ever increasing diversity of choice.  Choice is the national trend.  So let’s work to make that choice equitable.  Let’s promote justice in our educational systems.  Let’s hear from the communities affected, particularly those with less traditional power. 

We cannot ignore power.  We have an ugly history surrounding separate schools in America.  We would be foolish to forget this.  The great civil rights battles of the 1950s and 60s, for instance, and the goals of integration were not just about ending racial segregation.  They were more broadly about ending the deep inequalities and barriers that promote racial divide.  The fight was for the equity of opportunity.  We have not achieved that.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.   There is not equity of choice and thus there is work to do.  We must not assume that choice creates equity.  Equity of choice is a goal that we are constantly called to refine and fight for.  We never arrive.  But we keep pressing toward the light. 

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org