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School choice sounds great in theory—but who does the choosing?

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Say it ain’t so—public-school leaders in New Orleans tinkering with admissions rules to cherry-pick students? No way. These are open-enrollment public schools, aren’t they?

Apparently, public schools in the highly decentralized environment of New Orleans are making independent choices. Two of the most historic high schools in the Crescent City, McDonogh 35 and Eleanor McMain Secondary School, enrolled about a quarter of their newly admitted ninth-grade classes after both schools declared that no seats remained.

perrylogoSpecifically, McDonogh 35 and McMain admitted more students after the Orleans Parish School Board allowed them to leave the centralized, anonymous system (OneApp, which was built to ensure a transparent and fair enrollment process) and after they told hundreds of families that no seats were available. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, both schools required students to attain certain test-scores to get in. Regardless of their past history, an injustice exists when students are denied available seats in public schools.

Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, and Caroline Roemer Shirley of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools find fault with the much-maligned Orleans Parish School Board for allowing the schools to leave the OneApp process. But before casting blame on specific leaders, let’s examine what underlies the choice lobby.

“We need more choice!” is the rallying cry of a large faction in the current education-reform movement. Post-Katrina reform activists leveraged the lack of seats in a waterlogged district to advance a choice agenda.

Choice is certainly an important ideal. Charter groups co-signed and continuously support the elimination of attendance zones. New Schools for New Orleans and the Charter School Association stood by silently as Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal rushed his voucher legislation through the state legislature.

I find finger-waving from charter advocates confusing. It’s like they’re saying we want you to have choice—just the kind of choice that we think is good, and when we want you to have it.

I find finger-waving from charter advocates confusing. It’s like they’re saying we want you to have choice—just the kind of choice that we think is good, and when we want you to have it.

Organizations like the Black Alliance for Educational Options bring more credibility to choice arguments, as they have promoted choice by supporting charter-school legislation and Gov. Jindal’s voucher/scholarship policies. However, the federal government may require greater oversight over Jindal’s voucher policies, for they may weaken districts’ longstanding efforts to make public schools look like the public they are meant to serve.

Last year, Jindal said, “To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity.” Choice is as American as apple pie and incarceration. That people need and want choice in America is like saying humans need oxygen—who can really argue with that? But making blanket statements about the goodness of choice is too easy. As a result, politicians loosely mete out choice to parents like it is oxygen. However, there are limits to choice because our choices impact one another. Should parents have complete say regarding the education of their children? The Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), partially answered that question. Limits on school-choice systems should balance individual family wants and the public interest.

America’s racial and ethnic groups—as well as its socioeconomic classes—have an almost unconscious tendency to want to be educated with, hang out with and work with their social peers. For the longest time, our segregated communities demanded that schools and colleges organize themselves accordingly.

For better and worse, schools created great traditions in these segregated contexts. Particularly in New Orleans, white middle- and upper-middle-class flight in the 1960s and 70s solidified Catholic and private-school enrollments, which helped establish NOLA’s “saint and sinner” identity. Too many white parents abdicated their community responsibility to build better public schools on the moral ground that they must make a private decision for their family, even though family effectually meant their ethnic or socioeconomic group. The black middle classes also established their own legacies: Magnet schools McDonogh 35 and McMain, as well as black parochial schools like St. Augustine and Xavier Prep (now St. Katherine Drexel Preparatory High School), helped protect and organize the black middle class.

While I’m a staunch public-school advocate, I have sympathy for black middle-class families who don’t feel comfortable sending their children to largely white environments. They’re also uncomfortable with public schools that do not cater to high-achieving students, highly educated families or those who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ironically, a majority-black city has limited educational options for the black middle class. McDonogh 35 and McMain represent those spaces.

These great institutions emerged because of choice, and there is still a need to have such options, particularly for middle-class black families. However, public policy must strive for higher democratic principles. A “my kind of people” ethic has influenced education policy for too long. This ethic essentially gives up on the notion that “we are all in this together,” which should drive all education policy.

Even though a child may look, sound and smell different, he or she is our social relative. Most students in our communities and schools are either citizens or potential citizens. We should all learn together. This should be too basic to mention, but parents and policymakers tend to forget this from time to time.

No parent will “risk” compromising his or her child’s education in the name of democracy, however. Parents will make selfish decisions when it comes to the education of their children. But public policy can’t forget that our current schooling problems are the result of polices not based on the notion that we’re all in this together.

Choice can be limited in ways that honor the real concerns of families. New Orleans can make attendance zones large enough to ensure choice, but small enough to honor neighborhood characteristics. New Orleans must end the inefficient practice of busing students miles past schools that meet or exceed the academic standards of the families’ school of choice. New Orleans can have more themed schools that authentically attract students with similar interests. In short, New Orleans needs more quality public options.

New Orleans can’t afford another private school on the public’s dime. After their recent actions, McDonogh 35 and McMain should be compelled to rejoin the OneApp process to ensure fairness and transparency.

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bluffcityeducation

Love this piece. It contains morals for districts exploring expanded choice around the country. Thanks for casting a spotlight on the details of this important issue!

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