In language, we usually understand that choice and opportunity are different things. They, quite literally, have distinct meanings — a distinction that can mean a great deal to families who need both choices and opportunities.
It’s ironic, then, that in schools — the very places where language is taught — we blur the lines of meaning between those words, often using them interchangeably. Florida’s limited school choice program, for example, is called an “opportunity scholarship.”
Maybe that’s because the program was created and named by politicians who thought a program that promoted opportunities sounded better than one that offered choices. But that’s about selling an idea, not accurately describing what it does. What it does is create choice that can become opportunity — but not always.
When we casually use (or misuse) these words, we perpetuate a basic misunderstanding that “more choice” always equals “more opportunity.” Even in describing the program on its website, the Florida Department of Education uses the phrases interchangeably. It says, “As originally implemented, the program offered students who attended or who were assigned to attend failing public schools the option to choose a higher performing public school or a participating private school.” Offered an option — that’s correct.
But in describing the court ruling that disallowed state funds to be used for private schools, the same site continues, “Students … are no longer offered the opportunity to transfer and enroll in a participating private school.” Opportunity — that’s not always correct.
It’s tricky because it sounds right. But it’s more than an exercise in grammar. At the level at which real families make real decisions about the educational interests and needs of their children, there can be a wide gulf between having options and choices, and being able to turn those into opportunities. And the real danger is that, when we use these words to mean the same thing, we lose focus of the obstacles that keep real people from opportunities even when they have plenty of choices.
Just opening charter or magnet schools or having open enrollment or even creating options to attend private schools with public funds, as Florida tried, does not mean that families afforded those new choices will be aware of them or can actualize them. Too often we create these choices but don’t also create corresponding tools to ensure access. Without access, these cease to be choices and absolutely cannot be called opportunities. It’s not much of an opportunity, for example, to give someone a row boat without oars.
It’s probably no coincidence that nearly two decades after Florida launched its “opportunity” plan, state leaders still rank education and inequality — the very challenges the program was supposed to address — as the top two issues in the state. Clearly something isn’t working. Creating choices and then thinking of them as opportunities can’t possibly be helping.
Some districts and choice programs have improved both families’ awareness of choice schools and the transportation options to them. These improvements offer cause for celebration. In many cases, though, serious challenges to access remain.
The truth is that in many places, simply finding information about choice schools and programs is laborious. Florida is not alone in this, to be fair, but if you go to the state’s “opportunity scholarship” site and wish to participate, it sends you to a page with all 67 school district homepages — sites that may or may not make information about the program accessible once you get there.
In some other places, districts and schools still require a separate application for each school — often on paper, picked up and delivered by hand. When my wife and I tried to explore choice options for our kids in California, it took us days of driving, as well as picking up, filling out and dropping off forms. Fortunately, we had the time and ability to do that. But it gave us an appreciation of how the process can be a herculean labor for the many families that lack personal transportation or the ability to take time away from work.
That means it’s deeply important that, wherever choice exists, the application process be uniformly accessible and seamless — and that information be centrally located and easy to find and understand.
Today, that means having accessibility and information on mobile devices (yes, some families do not have computers or internet access at home) and one common application. Districts such as the Denver Public Schools, Oakland Unified, and Cleveland Metropolitan now have common applications that allow families to apply to many different schools at one time, in minutes. Every district that offers choice, and every state with locally run programs, should insist on this.
But information and applications aren’t the only considerations. Language may also be an issue.
Many people — even those in education leadership positions — are surprised to learn that nearly half of the choice applications we process aren’t in English. We have facilitated more than four million choice applications since 2014. That’s millions of families who otherwise may have been shut out of educational opportunities because of language barriers. It’s simply not possible to offer choice information and applications in one default language. And it’s crucial to remember that just because a student engages at high levels in English, his or her family members may not.
Trust is also on the list of things that separate choice from opportunity. Frankly, many families who are interested in school choices distrust the average selection system that is, at best, opaque. In situations where demand for a school or program is high, parents — especially those with limited resources or language acuity — believe politics play a role in who is selected. Any parent who has pursued a choice school probably does too.
To address selection bias, whether real or inferred, choice schools and districts can and should deploy third parties to run their selection processes or lotteries. To be an actual opportunity, parents must be able to believe that all children have a fair chance. And the best way to make parents believe in fairness is to be fair, but also clear, open and obvious.
These three issues — application, language and transparency — are keys to moving the growing marketplace of school choice into one of genuine school opportunity. But opportunity and choice remain separate ideas and accomplishments, and about that we must remain clear. Choice alone does not confer opportunity, but careful and attentive implementation of choice does.
Jinal Jhaveri co-founded SchoolMint to help families that face language, location or economic barriers in navigating school choice.