A reader from Oregon explains the destructive consequences of choice. School choice has been a goal of the right for decades and is now embraced by the Obama administration:

“For US education to thrive, charters must go.

“Some Win, Some Lose with Open Enrollment”. The headline in the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard may seem like an occasion for joy to the winning school districts but, really, it is just terribly sad for all of us. Open enrollment across district lines is the latest and most extreme version of a school choice movement that is on a trajectory to split public education in two – one set of schools for the haves and the other for those left behind.

School choice is probably the most popular of the signature elements of the current school reform movement – and is there any reason why alternative and charter schools shouldn’t be popular? They house some of the best teachers and some of the most innovative programs; they have more opportunities for enrichment because they are exempt from many of the requirements faced by regular schools; and the parents are more involved and more able to donate time and money – the last not because they care more about their kids. Rather it is because the parents need to be able to provide transportation and often are required to agree to levels of involvement not possible for families without a car and a stay-at-home parent.

The result: one set of schools with wealthier, less diverse students and fewer kids with special needs; the other serving children more diverse in ethnicity, income and educational needs (with fewer resources and more requirements). Public education was supposed to be the great equalizer, an inclusive, welcoming place that gives all kids a chance to climb the ladder of success. But current trends create a de facto tracking system based on socioeconomic status.

Of course we’ve always had school choice. Through the 1960s the choice was public or private. Over the last few decades, however, public school districts created alternative and charter schools and encouraged them to draw their students from the surrounding neighborhood schools. In a Darwinian battle the schools would compete for students with the best schools thriving and good riddance to the losers. It is really hard to believe that school “reformers” didn’t foresee the result: the non-charters left with the most needy kids, fewer resources and, inevitably, failure.

The fact that public alternatives and charters have many good teachers and leaders and involved parents is, itself, the strongest argument against public charters and alternatives. Those are the very resources needed by neighborhood schools to make them what they need to be. And it isn’t even a zero-sum game – it’s negative-sum. Services are duplicated and shifting enrollments make long-range planning impossible.

The parents of students who choose schools outside their neighborhoods are not the problem – good parents will always look for the best available school for their children. The teachers and administrators in those schools are not the problem – many of them are among the best. The problem is the system that sends parents school shopping in the first place.

It is a system that takes advantage of the parental instinct to provide our children with the best possible education. You don’t have to be a public school hater to participate; school shopping has become a mark of good parenting for parents of all persuasions. “I can’t send my daughter to the neighborhood school,” said one mom recently. “Those parents aren’t involved.” And, sadly, what used to be a myth is creating a reality as parents like her opt out of their neighborhood schools.

If, as I suggest, we are to end most school choice, it is important to be sure that we are sending our kids to excellent neighborhood schools. To be honest, part of the reason parents have been so willing to drive their kids across town (or now to a different town) is that some neighborhood schools had become rigid, take-it-or-leave-it, hostile-to-change institutions. Parents with concerns or questions were considered pests. Though they can’t be all things to all people, our neighborhood schools need to be what many already are; nimble, responsive, welcoming neighborhood centers providing an outstanding education to all kids.

The successful innovations that charter and alternative schools have devised wouldn’t be wasted. They – including language immersion – can and should be applied in the neighborhood schools. And charters and alternatives that step up to meet the needs of high school students when regular high schools are unable to do so should be allowed to keep working with, rather than competing against, the mainstream schools.

It is a cliché that if you are attacked from both sides of an issue, you are probably correct. But school “reform” seems to call for a corollary: if there is agreement on an issue from both sides of the aisle, it must be wrong. It is truly mind-boggling that free-market educational policies – so obviously counterproductive, ineffective and unsustainable – are supported by both Democrats and Republicans. The deck may be stacked against us but if we are truly committed to equity, diversity and efficiency in our public schools we’ll need keep working to convince officials, parents and educators that it is essential that we stop this suicidal intra- and inter-district competition, phase out school shopping and bring back new and improved versions of the centers of our neighborhoods – our schools.

Jim Watson, Eugene, Oregon