How Can We Serve All Students Well?
Public schools serve all students. This idea leads to one of the most common criticisms of school choice programs—that these programs only serve a select group of students. I believe this criticism stems from an honest desire to ensure every child gets a good education. Yet, this attack on school choice programs falls short. It is a red herring and distracts from the true issues at hand. Moreover, it elevates one value over others that we hold as a society, such as diversity and pluralism.
When critics of school choice levy this claim of exclusion against private schools, they forget a few important details. First, it is not historically true that public schools served all people. Black Americans, Native Americans, students with special needs, and nearly every other marginalized group can point to a time in our nation’s history when they were excluded from our public school system.
Second, this claim of “serving all” is not presently true. No school can serve all students, so our public school system rations admission. Several public schools have attendance zones that draw boundaries between affluent and impoverished communities. These lines can and do exclude poor students from receiving a quality education. In fact, schools have employees whose jobs are to vet the addresses of students to remove those that do not belong.
The truth is that no school serves every child. It is impossible. That is why this attack fails; the true goal is not for a single school to serve every child but for every child to be served well by our educational systems. Serving all students well can only happen when we recognize the point of an education system is to meet the unique and varied needs of students and their families.
The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood this. In a 1977 address to the graduating class of LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY, he said:
Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too, and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed.
I cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that they be embodied in our national policies for the betterment of American education.
Our public education system should serve every student well. Yet we simply cannot do that by assigning students to schools via mandatory attendance boundaries. The only way to truly serve all students well is to elevate these other values of diversity, pluralism, and variety. The only way to truly serve all students well is to provide them with educational options.