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Educational paternalism: What do super-size soft drinks have to do with school choice?

Walt Gardner, author of Education Week's Reality Check blog, recently raised some legitimate concerns about school choice, asking, "How Much Parental Choice is Enough?"

Gardner was responding to presidential candidate Mitt Romney's call for vastly expanding schooling options for America's families.  Romney argued that parents should be able to enroll their children in any school anywhere space could accommodate them. 

This is actually a topic of immediate relevance in Kentucky, where such a question was recently put to the state Supreme Court in the latest challenge to Jefferson County's student assignment policy, albeit within the context of public schools in the same district.  (Technically, the debate centers, in part, on what it means to "enroll" a student; the implications would be considerable for larger school districts.  The Court is not expected to rule on this until later this summer). 

Romney knew nothing about our situation in Kentucky I suspect, and meant his statement, I think, as more of a philosophical principle, one that school choice advocates would generally applaud.  Walt Gardner questioned this notion that parents should be able to send their children to any school that will take them, however, noting the considerable expense and effort some families make to buy homes and live in districts where the neighborhood schools are high-performing.  Gardner seems to think it would be unfair for out-of-neighborhood families to get the benefit of those good schools without actually moving there.

I don't want to be overly harsh in my reaction to Gardner's comments, because Walt is a reliable (if very cautious) advocate for school choice.  I'll save my specific objections to his overall point for another time.  Mainly I want to respond to something Gardner wrote almost as an aside.  Here's what he said:

Although I've long supported parental choice of schools, I've also pointed out that not all children have parents involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them. These children, therefore, become collateral damage.

Gardner goes on to say that poor kids aren't the only victims.  So are the families who sacrifice to move to neighborhoods with high performing schools - the main point of his blog post.

This idea that poor parents aren't well-equipped, knowledgeable, or concerned enough to make good educational choices for their children comes up sometimes in discussions about school choice and I think it rings of a kind of paternalism and intellectual superiority that contributes greatly to the enormous blind spot many professional educators have toward choice-based school reforms.

Why must government-run schools maintain their monopoly on educational services?  Why, because parents are too stupid to figure out what kinds of schools their children really need.  We educators have had all this training and experience.  Clearly we know best.

I'm not suggesting this is Walt Gardner's attitude on this topic.  But his words echo this kind of thinking, which is the essence of much educator opposition to school choice.

In my experience, which includes a number of years as principal of an alternative high school for at-risk students, poor parents want the best possible education for their kids, just like everyone else.  They don't always know how to advocate for it, or even what to ask for (as many of them had poor schooling experiences themselves), and in this sense Walt is right.  Poor, undereducated parents are probably at a disadvantage to everyone else in making all decisions, educational or otherwise.

But this disadvantage is not grounds for denying poor families a wider range of educational choices. Rather, it reinforces the need to give families of all income levels more choices, because the technocratic tyranny by which supposedly all-wise educators provide what's best for everyone else's children clearly does not work for many kids.

Americans, ever independent, eventually push back on this kind of paternalism, just as New Yorkers are irately questioning the mayor's current push to decide what size soft drinks are appropriate for them to choose.  The mayor's attitude: "Clearly you can't make good choices on your own; just look at your fat selves."

Whatever the mayor's good intentions, whatever the good intentions of educators who are concerned about the poor, Americans still want - and deserve - a choice.

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