Addressing Misconceptions About Choice

The growing number of charter schools and the expanded choice options offered to Michigan residents are promising developments, but they were not achieved without struggle, turmoil, and acrimonious debate. Given the long and established history of public education, it is not surprising that the concept of expanded educational choice is threatening to some. Though Americans pride themselves on their innovations, advancements, and entrepreneurial spirit, we are still, as Chubb and Moe point out, a people who cling to our perceived heritage, our institutional underpinnings, and our founding creeds, even when the institutions we have inherited are no longer serving us well.

Some of those individuals and organizations that are opposed to the implementation of choice assert that parental choice will eventually lead to the disintegration of the entire system of public education. They argue that the system has served America well for years, and should not be significantly changed. In this century, it is true that a strong public school system has been one of the bedrocks of American society, serving as a cohesive force in a heterogeneous society and enabling people with varied backgrounds to live together in support of common goals and values. This government school system, which grew up from a network of local community schools, has traditionally been a place that offers not only a basic education in subjects such as reading and math, but also an education in citizenship and the workings of American government. However, that legitimate concern has in some cases given way to an overreaction against parents and others who believe they should pursue better alternatives.

Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and noted school reformer, has summarized the overreaction of some protectors of the current system in various states:

  • A Queens, New York couple was charged with fraud for enrolling their 12-year old in a different school system.

  • The public schools in Morrisville, Pennsylvania pay a $500 bounty on nonresident students who are fingered for attending better schools without permission.

  • A Cleveland mother was actually jailed for putting her son in a neighboring school district "because I wanted him to have a better life and a better education."

  • Illinois now has a criminal statute for "illegal school registration," a misdemeanor punishable by jail and fines.

Finn concludes:

Fortunately for children, school choice is spreading despite the system’s efforts to stop it. And spread it should. There is no reason to confine children, against their families’ wishes, in a bad school when there’s a good alternative on the next block, in the next town, or even in the next state.19

Other overreactions have appeared as well. Today, it is not unusual to see supporters of school choice, especially voucher supporters, to be labeled as "extremists" and lumped together with Ku Klux Klan members or termed a member of the "radical right." The chief lobbyist for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest public school employee union, has said that anyone who supports educational vouchers is "basically racist in nature."20 The MEA also threatened to blacklist teacher education students at a public university if that university chartered public school academies contrary to the MEA’s demands.21 One innocuous-sounding group, the "Coalition for Democracy," supported heavily by the two main teachers’ unions in New York, even has a list of "extremist" groups, which includes such organizations as the Concerned Women of America, the National Association of Christian Educators, and an all-purpose listing for "Taxpayers’ Association: (list specific name.)"22

Of course, the majority of those who defend or work in the public school system do not fall victim to these extreme overreactions. Most are rightly concerned with the quality of education and want it improved. Even among the more thoughtful opponents of parental choice, however, there are several misconceptions that can be dispelled by a review of the experience with parental choice around the nation.

Some individuals and organizations that are opposed to parental choice assert that it will eventually lead to the disintegration of the entire system of public education.

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