I was recently in a discussion slash argument with an official from a large charter school company. He was making the case that the schools of the company were schools of choice and had long waiting lists, ergo they are good schools – otherwise parents would not choose to send their children there. This despite the evidence suggesting the companies’ schools are mediocre at best. There is certainly a simple and elegant logic to that argument which I appreciate. There is another side of course, which overlooks the reality of the options available in the choice.
School choice, from the point of view of a for-profit education salesman, is a simple example of consumer rationality. A family faced with the choice between educational option A and educational option B will simply reveal their preference and select the school that matches their family interests. The extension of that logic, the salesmen would have us believe, is that if you have long waiting lists for your schools, then your schools must be good. Neat, clean and spurious.
From the point of view of education as a public good instrumental in a civil society, there is a different conception of choice. The majority of charter schools in the United States are in communities where the public school systems are poor, dysfunctional and ineffective. Detroit is a prime example. That translates into individual schools that are unsafe, unclean, undesirable dark places that have little to do with education. Of course those communities are highly correlated with populations of the black and brown poor. In many instances the families of these communities are facing educational suicide for their children if they enroll them in their local public school. In states like Georgia where students’ academic performance, on average, ranks 48th among all states, it is clear how bad local public schools can be.
Under these circumstances, parents would choose any school option over the local public school where failure is a near certainty. The salesman’s argument presents a false choice. It suggests that the waiting list for the life raft is because you offered drowning people a good raft. As long as the raft is afloat, people will choose it. The quality of option A is immaterial when certain ignorance and psychological damage is option B. Using the argument of school choice under these circumstances is pimping the concept of choice. Real school choice is when families are choosing between schools of equal caliber and different styles.
This argument allows educational salesmen to pimp choice and use it as a reason to provide poor people mediocre education while profiting from the public trough. Thank goodness for the good, regular public education I got, otherwise I might not be able to recognize the pedagogy of the pimp.