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Thoughts on Choice: The Big 'Why'

All students are entitled to high quality education. None are entitled to a charter.

Thoughts on Choice: The Big 'Why'


Editor's note: The following was written as a letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, and is reprinted here.

As we reach the end of this so-called “National School Choice Week,” I offer these thoughts on “choice” in public education.

Writ large, “school choice” can refer to charter schools, private schools, home schooling, magnet public schools, open enrollment policies, inter-district transfers, enrichment, web-based learning, MOOCs, private tutors and more. “Choice” can even mean “democracy” and “local control” when a community chooses a new slate of school district Trustees on election day. There’s a wealth of “choice” in education, but practically speaking, this word “choice,” so much used in the current national education reform context, has been commandeered by the charter movement. Today, in California public education circles, “choice” usually just means “charter.” OK then, I’ll play along—herein, I’ll use “choice” to mean just “charter”—which is regrettable, since I’m a supporter of choice (broadly speaking) but I’m not always a supporter of charters.

I believe there are gaps and problems in California charter law that create significant unintended, negative consequences for students, districts and communities, and the root cause is lack of clarity between various levels of
public education administration vis-a-vis their respective missions, roles and responsibilities.

I’ve read various portions of the California Constitution, Education Code, Department of Education web site, and other sites published by groups like the California Charter Schools Association, Students First, the Santa Clara County Office of Education and others. I’m struck by their near-universal emphasis on two things: “high performance” and serving “needy students.” I’m not implying these shouldn’t be emphasized by both the public education establishment and reformers, what strikes me is that these top-level priorities are too often buried in the rhetoric about charter schools.

The mantra we hear from the charter movement—and what usually gets printed in the paper—is often inarticulate, ungrounded, undifferentiated “choice” and “parent empowerment,” as though reaching for such high-minded and vague
ideals is sufficient to accomplish explicit, written goals of “high performance,” particularly for “needy students.” In reality, choice untethered from the hardscrabble mandates of public education can just as easily result in demographic segregation as pedagogical stimulation. I repeat: When “choice” can be deployed in pursuit of vague ideals and personal taste rather than the
unmet needs of students it can lead to discrimination. We know this because it’s happening today, and it’s on the rise.

Here’s why it matters: Public education serves all students. Allowing niche groups to opt out to form “schools of choice” undermines the “commons” model of public education, partitioning the system to create separate and unequal education. Should we allow such dislocation and disruption if it’s not absolutely necessary for achieving high quality education? A well-managed, high-performing system of public education for all is not improved by introducing segregation and discrimination.

What’s most important in all this? If you’re in the education trade, nothing is more important than student learning; your craft is instruction, your value add is erudition. Naturally, the mission of the California Department of Education is to “provide a world class education for all students.” Presumably, all programs, priorities and administrative strategies developed and operated by the CDE are designed to help achieve this mission. Tom Torlakson, Superintendent of Public Instruction (the CEO of the CDE), developed, adopted and publicized a “Blueprint for Great Schools” that specifies nine broad strategies for
achieving CDE’s mission. Not one of these strategies includes expanding charter schools in the delivery of California public education. Apparently, after a 20-year charter experiment, the CDE sees no benefit in a broad roll-out of charters, and the reason for this is simple: districts and charters are neither equals nor peers, and the CDE prefers traditional districts.

Geographic school districts have been the fundamental operating unit in California public education under the state Constitution since 1849, while charters have been permitted since 1992 under the Education Code. The California public school system is built on bedrock districts run by locally elected governing boards, so the CDEs priority is helping local districts do a great job. The CDE is not in the business of replacing, disrupting or unduly interfering with its school districts. Rather, it has a vision and a plan for strengthening them because they are the dominant and preferred delivery model.

Said another way, traditional school districts with elected boards acting as local administrative agents of the CDE are the rule and charters are the exception. I’ll be even more direct: charters are neither an educational goal nor an improvement strategy of the CDE, they are merely an experimental alternative to the traditional district delivery model. They’re often unnecessary, and they’re certainly no one’s entitlement. All students are entitled to high quality education; none are entitled to a charter.

There is no serious disagreement or doubt that charters are intended to remedy educational shortcomings. Charters are meant to improve public education, with a particular emphasis on addressing needs of students under-served by traditional district programs. Charters are just one tool for improving education for students who aren’t otherwise thriving in a traditional district school. Choice in public education must always be employed as a means to achieve pedagogical improvement.

Choice purely for the sake of choice is an illegitimate application of charter law because it puts non-educational (usually parental) goals and objectives above actual educational needs of students. Charters are not an end in themselves, they are a means to an end. And where educational goals are being achieved by other means, such as by a traditional district program, a charter is simply unnecessary. Educationally unnecessary charters must be avoided because “choice” comes at a high cost.

Any charter school established and operated separately within a district increases the cost of education delivery. It duplicates administrative functions, reduces economies of scale and introduces facilities allocation constraints and inefficiencies. It can partition a community’s education assets (campuses, buildings), giving over a portion of them to a non-democratically controlled competitor vying for limited resources. It can even introduce costly and counter-productive legal conflicts.

“Choice” employed for its own sake, not as a special remedy for unmet educational need and without regard for cost implications, can never be legitimate within the public education enterprise.

California Governor Jerry Brown said in his January 2013 State of the State address to the Legislature, “This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.”

Local school districts that are well-run and high-performing, achieving performance goals set by the CDE, must be allowed to thrive unfettered. Locally elected governing boards that are, by objective measures, responsible, effective administrative agents of the CDE have earned the right to be free from disruption, both from within and from without. Where local governance succeeds, no higher or more remote level of government should interfere. High quality education is the goal and local control is how we achieve it, and where it succeeds, it should not suffer interference.

So we have a system of public education established by state constitution, overseen by state-level officials through local agencies. But we also have county-level administrators and boards. What is the relationship between local and county-level education boards and superintendents? According to the CDE website, “There are 58 county offices of education that provide services to the state’s school districts. County offices of education support school districts by performing tasks that can be done more efficiently and economically at the county level.”

County offices of education are service agencies intended to provide support for local districts, to help them achieve their goal of providing a world-class education for all students. Any county office of education or county superintendent that intervenes in the operation of a high-performing local school district is in breach of its fiduciary, has abandoned its mission, and unjustly deprives the community served by such high-performing district of well-earned local control.

As we wind down this “National School Choice Week,” let’s make it a priority to get back on top of some of these questions and issues. Let’s mend gaps in state law that result in confusion between our various education administrators with respect to their roles and responsibilities. Let’s give credit to the successes of both districts and charters where it’s due, but also remember that districts and charters are simply not created equal. High-performing districts throughout the system is the goal, vastly preferred over ad hoc charter experiments, but charters just might be one way we identify a new scalable model. Let’s
celebrate the achievement of our many high-performing schools and districts and concentrate our “reform” energies on those schools and districts that truly need remedial support.

If we do all this, we stand a far better chance of achieving the CDE mission of “a world class education for all.”

—Joe Seither

NOTE: These views are my own, and are not necessarily representative of, or offered on behalf of, any organization I volunteer for, including:
• Huttlinger Alliance for Education, founding Director (2012-13)
• Los Altos Educational Foundation (LAEF), Co-President and Director (2007-2013)

Joe attended California public schools and graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where he met his wife, Los Altos native Kelly Packer (Springer/Blach/LAHS). The Seithers’ two children attended Oak Elementary and Blach Intermediate schools. Joe has served on the Board of the Los Altos Educational Foundation since 2007 as Director, Marketing leader and Co-President. The Seithers have volunteered in support of many school programs over the years, and Joe has been recognized for his significant contributions to the students of Oak School and LASD with the California State PTA ‘s most prestigious “Golden Oak” service award. joeseither@me.com

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