School choice advocates see that a student may be faced with a situation where if a school is a bad fit, they’re stuck there anyway. They want to help students by making it so that if they don’t like it where they are, they can leave and take their government funding with them to any other school the government has deemed acceptable.
But, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee an upgrade. “If you don’t like it here, then leave” is not the liberating policy for students that its advocates seem to think it is.
As an alternative, better policy, individual schools should change in ways that make them more accommodating to those students who would otherwise leave the school, while not becoming less accommodating to other students.
This would give students who want things about their school changed the opportunity to see that change can happen, even regarding those issues which aren’t substantial enough to compel them to leave a school.
Consider how this would work in two different scenarios:
In the first scenario, imagine that a student wants to study, say, ancient Greek. The standard response nowadays would be to send this student to a school that already offers Greek, even if that school might be lacking other benefits or opportunities. I propose that the school that this student already attends should instead find or make a way for that student to be able to take classes on ancient Greek, in the same way that an adult who starts a new course on Duolingo shouldn’t have to leave their country and renounce their citizenship to learn a new language.
In the second scenario, imagine that a student wants better teachers. This could mean teachers who use a particular methodology or classroom management style, but the specifics aren’t important, as long as somebody can identify which teachers are subjectively better. The typical response currently might be to send this student to a school where teachers are trained in a particular way or have a better reputation. Instead, I propose, the school that the student already attends should find and if not hire, at least find a way for that student to take the classes they want from the better teachers, say, remotely or through independent study, in the same way that a disabled student should be given any and all accommodations they need in school, instead being denied accommodations to the point where they have no choice but to leave their current school.
Currently, students only have a chance at taking classes from what they may consider the best teachers if they happen to attend the school where that teacher teaches, which is unfair. Every student should at least have a chance to learn from the best teachers, even if they aren’t already spending most of their time in the same school building.
We should think about schools the same way we think about libraries. Imagine a world where there were many different libraries, but everyone could only have membership to one library at a time. If I lived in that place and somebody was arguing that we should make it easier for people to transfer their memberships from one library to another, you can bet your first-born that I’d argue that libraries should all circulate their books together. I would advocate forming one big library with local branches like the New York Public Library.
If, when you consider these ideas, you conclude that it is just too impractical to implement in schools, then I assume you must say the same thing about accommodating disabled students. That would imply you believe that some students just aren’t worth the trouble to accommodate, in which case, you’re a lost cause. Many people do have that attitude however, and that’s why I’d be willing to bet that at least a few of the students in District 75 schools (which are for disabled “students with significant challenges”) are there because their previous schools didn’t adequately accommodate them.
But, even taking that concern at face value, I think that that says more about the flaws of our educational institutions than the potential of total accommodation. These ideas may very well require a fundamental restructure and redesign of our educational institutions, which is long overdue.
The correct concern regarding these ideas, is that schools would start to sort students into blocks of larger groups of similar students which are easier to control en masse, essentially tracking students. And, that’s a valid concern, as I expect schools would do this if we let them. For example, a school might decide to administer a test to all of its students and give the highest scoring students exclusive access to certain teachers, opportunities, or facilities from which all students could benefit. But, that’s why every time they may try to regroup students to form what might effectively become an equally-restrictive school within a school, they would need to be stopped. And, again, that is why educational institutions must be fundamentally restructured so that the standard mass production method of “group, teach, evaluate, compare, repeat” ceases to be the go-to method of education.
If you truly think that there are too many situations where it would be impossible to make a school a better fit for one student without making it a worse fit for another, you need to let go of the idea that a school’s purpose is to make all of its students as similar as possible. In any school, any opposing interests should be reconcilable, in the same way that in a democractic non-competitive society, a change that helps one person doesn’t necessarily have to hurt another.
A quintessential example of counter-productivity in creating more schools rather than altering existing ones is the small schools movement which sometimes broke larger schools in multiple smaller schools in the same building. Theoretically, that might allow each school to specialize, innovate, and cater better to its particular student body. But, creating more schools, without creating more total students is like buying three minifridges to replace your one large refrigerator. It doesn’t mean you have more or better food, and it makes it more time consuming to find the things you want from each minifridge.
Because each school’s resources are accessible only to the students of that school, adding a new school to students’ options makes that school’s resources less accessible to every student who does not attend that newly created school. As the number of schools increases, the resources given to those new schools will become less accessible to larger portions of students by becoming exclusively accessible to the ever-decreasing number of students who will choose to attend any newly added school.
Concentrating resources (including the precious resources of one-on-one time with teachers and small class sizes typically associated with smaller schools) in a few large, accessible schools, is closer to the ideal of accommodating all students than a balkanization of education could ever be.