Pennsylvania’s new Governor, Tom Corbett, ran on a platform of school vouchers. He and his neighbor, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been pushing for legislation to bring more of them to their respective states. Most of the arguments I have heard supporting school vouchers is that they support school choice.
This idea that being able to choose from a traditional public school, a public charter, a parochial school or a private independent school is true ‘choice’ is a huge falsehood.
When we talk about school choice, we should be talking about choices in instructional models. We know that not all students learn the same. We know that some students can succeed in the traditional model. We know that many do not. We also know that there are a variety of alternatives to the traditional model.
I recently went to a public gathering focused around the new independent school opening here in Philadelphia called Philly Free School. The founders of the school have spent a lot of time visiting similar schools which are based off of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachussets, a democratic school in which students direct their own learning and make all the decisions in the school through a democratic process. In the informative literature from the Fairhaven School that they distributed at the meeting, there was a sheet for parents to help them understand and explain the school’s model to others. It was called, “OK, so you’re sort of like…” followed by a list of school models and a comparison between them and the Fairhaven model. Some of the school models on the list were a Montessori School, a Waldorf School, a Progressive School, Homeschooling and Student Governments in traditional schools.
This list shows what true school choice really looks like.
The Philly Free School is an amazing model. It takes a certain kind of student to be able to function there and it takes even that kind of student time to adjust when coming from a traditional school setting. It is not for everyone. Similarly, a Montessori School model might be too open and free for some students (though I would argue it would be too open and free for the parents rather than the student), while another model might be too test-driven for a family.
Recently, I have been reflecting on my own education. I experienced a variety of school models over the course of my K-12 education career, some of which fit me well and some which did not. I started my schooling in a Montessori school. I then entered Kindergarten at a small private school that stressed project-based learning. I spent K-3rd grades tackling a huge, multi-layered project each year. I also spent my summers exploring beaches, marshes and reading tons of books of my own choosing (some might call this self-directed learning).
As I entered 4th grade in the new district that my parents had chosen to move to due to its high-performing schools, I began my first experience with traditional public schooling. Needless to say, I was miserable. I was placed in a Talented and Gifted program (TAG), for which I was pulled out of class, but school was much, much different. Timed tests, bullying and few projects or student-centered learning.
I spent the rest of my school years in the local public schools until senior year when I applied to Walkabout, an alternative program for high school seniors. During my senior year I completed a 4 week community service project during which I only went to school once a week, went on two week-long backpacking trips, and completed a 6-week internship in NYC that I landed on my own. During my internship I also only attended school once a week. That year was one of the best years of school I can remember.
One aspect of Walkabout and the private school I attended was that they were selective. There were a limited number of slots in the Walkabout program and the director of the program hand-selected students from the applicants, choosing only those for whom the program was a good fit. To enter the private school I took a series of IQ and other tests (some which helped me earn scholarship money) as a sort of screening process.
I’m not sure that this means that traditional public schools should be selective, but I think that were there more diversity among public school models, not just climates, resources and performance then school choice would make more sense. Not all schools work for all kids, so why are we pretending that they do? Rather than offering boot camp ‘reform’ schools for ‘problem children,’ perhaps they just need a school that is more geared toward self-directed learning? Maybe those students who constantly get in trouble would benefit from the opportunity for more flexibility in their day. What about those students who are successful in traditional school but leave without any sense of what their true desires are?
We need to stop thinking about school choice at face value and begin to think more deeply about the choices we are really giving students and their families.