The frightening implications of school choice

Friends, let’s talk frankly about “choice”–the notion that people need or want dozens of options for their kids’ education.

I don’t care what anyone tells me about competition among schools making them all better, or how being able to pursue individual preference is paramount to all Americans. I don’t care. The real impact of choice is entirely, 100% negative on our neighborhoods, on our communities, our cities. All of them.

Because “choice” of this kind quietly diminishes the real power of our democratic voice while it upholds the promise of individual consumer preferences above all else.

Even though Chicago is famously a city of neighborhoods, CPS does not pursue a neighborhood-based model for its schools but rather, choice–the constant proliferation of charter school options, even when neighborhoods don’t want this and even when CPS cannot afford this.

In this model the local community is not important, and the voice of the local residents is not important. The neighborhood school is not the social epicenter for kids in one community and it is not the locus of parent effort and investment of time. In some neighborhoods few resident kids attend the local school and in still others the neighborhood school is shuttered and abandoned.

What is important in this model? Marketing. Test scores. Options.

Schools must now “build a brand” in order to attract students. Schools must maintain high test scores at all costs, regardless of what corners have to be cut in the process. And a multiplicity of schools offers us all a dizzying, and therefore–according to this logic–superior, array of options.

But in a choice district, parents and kids rarely have the one option they most want–a strong, well resourced, nearby, neighborhood school. I think there’s a reason for this.

We’re veterans of choice in our family. I can tell you what I see in my neighborhood.

This is what school choice looks like: no schoolmates in your neighborhood for your whole life.

It looks like children traveling several hours a day to get to and from their schools.

It looks like very little political and residential investment into the heart of neighborhood communities.

On our street alone we have kids in 4 different schools. My children’s neighborhood friends on nearby streets attend 4 separate other CPS schools. These kids travel for up to three hours per day getting across town in all different directions. And we their parents, living on just a few blocks, pour our energies into schools in 8 different areas.

There’s something significant going on here and I don’t want you to miss it. Please pay attention to this.

With the choice model, what CPS is doing is investing in severing community. CPS has chosen a school model that fractures and breaks down local bonds among families and within neighborhoods.

But consider: severing community bonds intentionally is not something democracies do. Democracies require stable communities with strong institutions that are of, by, and for the community. Democracies are built on strong stable localities.

Severing community bonds intentionally is something totalitarian regimes do. Because it weakens communities, it weakens individuals, it weakens their democratic voice and power.

Indeed, we see weak democratic process here in Chicago! When thousands of ordinary voters raise their voices against charter schools coming into their community, as in Noble’s proposal on the southwest side, CPS does not heed them. When they beg for their neighborhood school to get proper investment and support–even just to fix a broken, carbon monoxide spewing boiler–CPS does not heed them. When the democratic process brings a charter expansion moratorium to City Hall signed by 42 aldermen and backed by thousands of CPS families, neither the mayor nor CPS heeds this. When the democratic process produces a beautiful community school revitalization plan as in the case of Dyett, neither the mayor nor CPS heeds this. When the people of Chicago say by an 85% margin in a vote that they want an elected school board, does that matter to city and district leaders?


Our voices mean nothing to our school leaders. They continue to babble nonsensically and expect that we will just nod our heads and bob along obediently.

How else can we possibly make sense of Forrest Claypool attempting to enlist parents to defend the terrible, unconscionable budget choices CPS has made–now expecting us to write to Springfield on his behalf? How to parse Rahm’s “reaching out his hands” to teachers–even as he threatens historic, massive layoffs?

These people don’t care about our opinions, even though they are elected and appointed to serve us, not the other way around. But no matter–they can almost count on the fact that we will not oppose them in an organized way, because they have severed so many of our community connections by scattering our schools, our children, and our alliances. They have gutted many communities entirely of their beating internal organs by shuttering their schools. All of this motion, all of this churn, all of this choice keeps us moving, nomadic, unconnected.

Most of us are savvy enough to know that the future goal and end game of “school choice” is the breakdown of a fully funded public school system in favor of full privatization. But there’s more going on here, and it has to do with the breakdown of our democratic voice as we are spoon-fed false promises of individual consumer preference. Is this a trade we’re really willing to make?

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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