School Choice: The Personal and the Political
Parents naturally want the best schools for their children. In Saint Louis and Kansas City, this leads many parents to a tough decision. Do they pursue the best school for their child, which may not be the local public school, or do they work to improve their neighborhood school? Many decide to move to a higher-performing county school, to pay for a private school, or to enroll their child in a public charter school. These choices, of course, are not equally available to all parents. As in all areas of life, those with financial means have more options.
A while ago, I decided to explore this issue by conducting focus groups with parents in Missouri’s two largest urban centers. I met with 35 parents in five focus groups. In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of School Choice: International Research and Reform, I discuss the findings from these focus groups.
The crux of what I discovered in my research was a paradox: most parents value choices for themselves, but are skeptical of expanding the choices of others. While they valued the opportunities that would be available to their children, they worried that expanding choices might harm the education system as a whole.
As parents expressed reservations about school choice, one thing that stood out to me:
In many cases, parents seemed to have overstated the comparison. They did not compare school choice to reality; they compared school choice to a preconceived idea of a perfect education system – a high-quality school in every neighborhood. With this comparison, it is easy to see why they politically oppose school choice – it does not lead to their preconceived ideal. Poverty is the problem, not the schools. If we fix poverty, we will fix the schools. That comparison, however, does not describe the current reality in St. Louis or Kansas City. In both cities, the public school district model has failed to create a high-quality school in every neighborhood. It has led to a disparate education system.
We should not fall into this trap. The school systems in St. Louis and Kansas City had problems long before school choice was ever on the scene. Indeed, school choice offers a path out.
You can check out my full working paper here.