Revisiting the pros and cons of school choice

black woman and students during lesson
Photo by Katerina Holmes on

The school choice issue has long been debated in this country. Proponents say school choice is good for parents and children. Opponents say it is not fairly available along socioeconomic lines. The MSR recently talked to persons from both sides to see where the issue stands today.

“We all know school choice is more than charter schools,” declared Aaliyah Hodge, a senior consultant for the Center for School Change (CSC). Charter schools are independent public schools that have more authority and flexibility with decision-making and curriculum than traditional public schools.

But charter schools also are subject to stricter accountability in spending and academic performance. Minnesota was the first U.S. state to have charter schools and the first state to pass a charter school law.

Charter school opponents often argue that these schools aren’t public and are very selective in their student populations. “I’ve heard those comments that [charter schools] take money from neighborhood schools,” admitted Hodge. “But I look at it that it gives [more power] to the parents. Why would a parent have a child in a school district that is not serving their kid’s needs?”

“There were African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, as well as White mothers” looking for change for their children, recalled CSC Director Joe Nathan, who helped write the Minnesota charter school law. “Some wanted a school K-12 because they liked the idea of older kids and younger kids learning from each other [at the same location],” he continued. “Some wanted a different kind of philosophy for the traditional school.

Submitted photo Aaliyah Hodge

“What we’ve seen in the U.S. over the last 50 years is a growing recognition that there is no single best school for all youngsters,” argued Nathan. He said school choice for parents and children should be “in the best interest of the student, not the best interest of the system.”

K-12 enrollment in Minneapolis and St. Paul charter schools has grown significantly—1,791 (2001) to 11,624 (2019) in Minneapolis, and 2,993 (2001) to 12,432 (2019) in St. Paul.

Nationally, “More options also mean a greater diversity of school environments that provide better matches for parents and students looking for the ‘right fit’ for children’s development,” said Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools President Lenny McAllister, a school choice proponent. He told the MSR that school choice, in light of historical academic achievement gaps, has helped Black children and other students of color. He disagrees with those who claim that school choice produces “re-segregation.”

Hodge while in high school took PSEO classes, which later helped her graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree at age 19 and her master’s at age 21. She started People for PSEO, which provides PSEO information for students and parents. 

University of Minnesota Law Professor Myron Orfield, director of the school’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, told the MSR that while he is not totally anti-school choice he does not like open enrollment. This practice, which has been in place since the 1990s, has created more rather than less racial segregation in schools, Orfield said.

“Minneapolis is more segregated…in schools than they have ever been,” stated Orfield. He blames open enrollment, which Orfield says has “allowed a lot of White people to exit diverse schools to go to Whiter schools using school choice. It hasn’t provided the same choices for African Americans. 

“Studies say [charter schools] have created a lot of all-Black schools, a whole lot of all-Latino schools, and now are starting to create a whole lot of White schools.

 “The pandemic ideally will end up helping the school choice movement by showing more Americans the value of having [education] options during times of prosperity as well as times with challenges,” said McAllister. “We must find innovative, proficient and cost-effective ways to [deliver] education for more disadvantaged children.”

Orfield said he considers the school choice issue to be just one facet of this country’s inequities that need addressing. “The nation has never rigorously addressed racial segregation and economic inequality that affect not only Black people but also Latino people in central cities.  A whole ocean of systematic inequalities that is growing faster here [in Minneapolis] in the last 20 years, is now trying to get through a pandemic.” 

“Some youngsters have had great difficulty with distant learning, and some really thrived with distant learning,” observed Nathan. “It also shows that some youngsters really need to be in a school building and some have done very well from learning at home.

One Comment on “Revisiting the pros and cons of school choice”

  1. My son attended both a St. Paul Public Schools magnet elementary and a St. Paul-based charter middle school and high school. We enrolled him in the public magnet school for a variety of reasons, including our desire to support the public school system. When it became clear that the system wasn’t capable of meeting his needs, we opted for the charter school. He chose to remain there for his high school years rather than attend a private Roman Catholic high school. While the charter school was an improvement it, too, had its failings. I’m sure that the other option we considered would have had its own issues.

    Our experience and my observations as a public middle school tutor have given me reason to question the viability of these parallel public options. Charter schools have lead in many cases to what I call the Balkanization of education as they organize along ethnic, racial, cultural, and even religious orientations. They drain not only public funding from the rest of the public system, but many other resources, including teachers and many of the parents most interested in and capable of building a school-based community. Some are little more than another outlet for “white flight.”

    As a tutor, I saw schools struggle with many issues I hadn’t encountered in my charter school experience, where parental involvement was solicited and in fact required. Frankly, the expectations were lower in the public schools and the basic practices were inconsistent. E.g., the requirement to complete assignments, to have them reviewed by the teachers, and for the students to receive feedback on their work. Few teachers even imposed any consequences for the failure to perform the assigned work.

    I can offer no explanation for theses differences. Sadly, I have no solutions to offer either.

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