The Value of School Choice & Charters in a Compulsory Education System

Ideology – “The ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.

Values – “A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life

– Oxford Dictionary Online

Compulsory without ChoiceRight now the United States has a compulsory public education system (with compulsory education being adopted across the country from 1852 to 1918). In the past, parents were fined for not complying, and there was even the threat of taking children away from parents who resisted the laws of compulsory schooling. Since education is required, it is also provided for free. After all, you can’t require someone to attend a school that they can’t afford. And there are also provisions for allowing people the option of homeschooling or attending a private school. In a context like this, I see immense value (even importance) in maintaining a commitment to school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. My argument is not made by claiming that charters outperform other schools, or that they even do a better job in some easily quantifiable manner. It is also not made without recognizing abuses of some people with charters and choice, and the need to refine policy to address such problems and to demand accountability and transparency (as evidenced by a recent news release where the State of Michigan stated that 11 authorizers are “at risk of suspension” to create new charters). My position is instead informed by the role of ideology and values in education.

Look at writings in support of compulsory school from around the world, and these are some of the arguments that you see. 1) It creates a shared socialization experience for all children. 2) It ensures a baseline level of education for all children. 3) It gives children a chance to “escape” the ideals and beliefs of their family. Let’s consider each of these.

“It ensures a baseline level of education for all children.”

There are several important aspects to this claim, but I will focus upon two. First, I accept that there is indeed some truth to the claim, although we certainly do not have a baseline level of knowledge and skill among students today. And even when we see a baseline in given schools or districts, this does not address important issues, like the fact that some of the most valuable knowledge and skills that students learn comes from beyond school. It happens through socialization in school and community; through informal play, experimentation and exploration; through having mentors and role models in life; through access to books in the home; through the groups and communities in which people participate beyond school. These have immense influence on the future of young people. There is something to be said about certain baselines, like having people pass a basic driver’s test before getting a license, but there is not as clear of an agreed upon baseline in K-12 schooling, which leads us to the second point. What is the baseline? Who determines it? Who should or does get to decide what students do and do not learn…and how the learning takes place? That leads us quickly to the other two arguments for compulsory education.

“It gives children a chance to ‘escape’ the ideals and beliefs of their family by experiencing a “neutral” education.” and “It creates a shared socialization experience for all children.”

Visit a dozen public schools around the United States. Sit in the classes. Interview the students and teachers. Then try repeating this statement about the public education system providing a “neutral” education. Public education is deeply ideological and values-laden. The curriculum in schools is not as neutral as the criteria for a driver’s education program. There are strong ideological positions about everything from the human condition and human nature to ethics and social issues.

It can’t be avoided. Look at government and politics. Do we have ideology-free environments there?   Even in classes and schools where teachers try to hide their personal ideologies, beliefs and convictions; they show up. And if a school achieved complete ideological neutrality (which I contend is not possible), do we really want to provide an education that is free from any ideological discourse? If we do, then we have promoted a new ideology, one that is a-ideological. Look at the closing statement from President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, 2014. What are his closing words? “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” Is that ideologically neutral? How about our laws? What about the Bill of Rights? These are full of values and ideology. 

Ideologies are not just about matters of religions and ethics. They are also about beliefs and convictions regarding what constitutes a good education. These venture into what is learned and/or taught, but also into how it is learned and taught. The environment and culture is part of what is learned in a school. School leaders and teachers have strong convictions about how students should learn, behave, and act in school; but there is no universal agreement on these matters. Some value more student-led and democratic visions of schooling, where others argue for strong standards-based models that mandate to teachers what to teach and students what to learn. Some promote test-driven models while others advocate for more narrative feedback and portfolio assessment. Some promote a direct instruction vision where others embrace a project-based learning model. These all teach values and ideologies. They influence students in largely different ways, impacting how they think about themselves, others, and the world around them.

The Role of Choice

So, given this reality, what happens if we have a compulsory education system across the United States that provides little to no student or family choice on what and how things are learned? This is not a neutral education. Do we really want to repeat the errors of past generations in the United States when we forced native American children into boarding schools to “socialize” them? “Kill the native to save the man.” The United States does not have a track record of providing a neutral public education to young people. This is an education intended to teach the values and ideologies of the majority or of those with the greatest voice and influence in a given public school or school district. This is not an attack on public education, only a defense of choice in face of the fact that all schools (public and private) teach values and are influenced by ideology. Each public school and/or district haas control and influence over the values and ideologies that emerge in the school(s). And control and influence without individuals having choice is a dangerous and Orwellian path.

This is where school choice, voucher programs, and charter schools fit into my own philosophy of education. If we are going to require students to attend school, and school is incapable of being truly neutral, then it seems to me that the best option is to at least provide families and students with choice about the type of schools they choose to attend.

This is why debates about school choice can’t be reduced to comparisons of student performance and achievement on standardized tests, because more is taught and learned in school than what is measured on these tests. Education is about more than what certain groups choose to define as the best measures of student achievement, because those choices about what to test also reflect ideologies and values.

Without choice, vouchers, and charters; compulsory education mandates that students get an education into certain ideologies and values unless they have the money or life situation to afford homeschooling or a private school. Why should educational freedom related to one’s ideologies, beliefs, values and convictions only be available to those who can pay for it? That seems to set up a system that limits the rights of families based upon their economic situation.

What a second. We don’t let people choose which court to go to when they are on trial. Why should schools be any different? No, but we do have a jury of peers and legal counsel on both sides who have say in the makeup of that jury. That is not how we hire administrators and teachers in our local public schools, nor is it how we adopt curriculum or decide upon educational philosophies that shape the schools. And the court example allows choice and influence at the individual level…for each new person on trial. We don’t typically allow such choice on an individual level in our traditional schools.

Among those who argue against charters and choice, they are often some of the same who argue for putting the decisions in the hands of schools and teachers, not politicians and businesses. I agree with that in large part, but it does not solve the values and ideological issues that I’ve described so far. Note that the value is pro-teacher and pro-school (which is commendable), but there is nothing about leaving decisions to parents and students. What about pro-parent, pro-family, and pro-student? This is a massive philosophical and ideological difference among people in the United States. If some are trying to close down charters and remove choice and vouchers as an option from families, then we must give them an immense amount of choice and influence on what is taught/learned and the school culture.

Another position of some of the same people who argue against choice, vouchers and charters is the need to create a national curriculum that states what children in every grade should learn. Note that this is also about mandating values and ideologies on a national level in public schools. Not only do some people argue against choice and charters, but some of them also want to mandate the values and ideas taught to people in the only free education options that would be available to families. I realize that people will challenge me on this point, arguing that there is nothing that ideological about what we see in nationalized curricula, but that strikes me as being amazingly uninformed about the wonderfully diverse set of beliefs and values that come together in the people of the United States.

The vision of this nation is not to make everyone the same. We do strive toward certain shared values associated with the US Constitution, but schooling ventures into far more ideological and values-laden areas. As long as that is the case, I remain a strong advocate for the importance of choice, vouchers and charters; not to create some sort of healthy competition to improve the overall quality of education (because I don’t see evidence that it works that way), but because I believe in a vision of the United States that honors and values the Bill of Rights.

I recognize that there are serious challenges and problems in some choice, voucher and charter programs around the country…and they need to be addressed. Yet, I can’t support getting rid of them as long as we maintain a commitment to compulsory education.

Posted in blog, charter schools, education, education reform, School Choice

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).