Choice for Cities

Last week, The Atlantic lambasted school choice policies for threatening the American tradition of “uniting communities” with public high schools. The article argued school choice always considers the individual student over the “communal goal of education” defined as public schooling. Even worse, the article claims that a vote for school choice is a vote for abandoning our “towns, cities, and nation.” Today, we take on the notion that school choice is bad for communities and is only about “individual students.” As a matter of fact, this author might even find we have many similar priorities and concerns about the future of our neighborhoods and communities, but we’re looking at the problems from differing angles.


But first, a note on individual needs vs. community needs. Let’s take a step back from schools for a minute, and use a drastically different example to discuss the balance that is needed on this topic. Imagine for a minute that you are a very short person (like myself), and you are working out in the local YMCA weight room. You walk up to an exercise machine, and you are not surprised to find the seat at an average height for others. You certainly cannot work out on this machine with the seat at that height. Luckily, there’s a lever to change the height so you can use the machine, and as you work out, you aren’t angry you had to change the height of the seat. After all, this is a communal facility, so you are just grateful it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario where you could come to the gym, but you couldn’t work out.

But there ARE public places that just weren’t made for shorter people; public airport bathrooms being one of them. Have you seen the height of those toilets? Unlike the gym, those public toilets don’t have any special levers, so you have to hike yourself up high and let your legs swing if you’re short. Pray that the lock on the door works, or that someone looks WAY under the door to see your dangling feet to know you’re in there.

Are you laughing? This ridiculous example shows that there are times when the one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work (like when an assigned school doesn’t fit an individual student). Our goal as a non-profit is to strike a balance and strive towards effective education for both the community as a whole but also for the individual student; we’re aiming for a YMCA scenario rather than an oversized public airport toilet.


And now to tackle the idea that school choice threatens to dismantle the way high schools have shaped American society within cities. The Atlantic’s argument in this publication is high schools had a significant impact on the identity of cities in the 19th and early 20th century. The article spends a lot of time describing Horace Mann’s education philosophies that were centered around a universal knowledge base for communities instead of education for those only training to be doctors, lawyers, and clergy.

Next, the article asserts the power of “school spirit” to bring communities together - school plays, football games, service during war times, and even yearbooks were touted as community builders. For these two reasons, according to The Atlantic, it is a crime to attend school places other than your assigned school.

But here is where the flaws begin to creep in. Responding to the idea of the public high schools as the center for universal knowledge, Mann’s hope that public schools would be “the great equalizer of men” has not come to fruition. As pointed out by The Hill on constitutional rights for equal education, although the task of providing education has appropriately fallen to states,

“There simply is no national standard requiring states to deal with underperforming schools or to respond to the needs of struggling students... student success should not be determined by which state they are born in — but right now, it is.”

In other words, the state of public education across the country is FAR from equalizing.

Even worse, as The Atlantic itself points out, student success can also be determined by a student’s neighborhood. Describing a drastic shift in neighborhoods, The Atlantic writes, “As wealthy white citizens moved out of the cities and formed new, homogenous communities in the suburbs in the second half of the 20th century, their attachment to the city’s schools and children was sundered.”

The tone of this description leaves the reader focused on economic and racial factors, which no doubt played a part in this upheaval, but also research shows that even now families who live in urban places often move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. And, I should note, they are often moving there for better public schools. Why? Because although the idea of a high school shaping a city sounds fantastic, schools no longer have the power to have this type of impact when they are even struggling to keep the heat on. And parents? If they have the financial means to take their children out of such harsh circumstances, they will.

Another Atlantic article cited in this story actually empathizes with parents who move their children away from failing schools stating,

“Each year, it seems, urban schools serve larger concentrations of poor students, racial minorities, and English-language learners. As higher-income families depart, resources go with them, and schools are faced with the daunting prospect of doing more with less. If such departures are driven by good information about school quality, one can hardly blame parents with resources for acting in the best interests of their children.”

(What happened to all that individual vs. community talk?)

The fact of the matter is this article is right about the problem. The loss of economic and social diversity at our city centers across America is tragic, and research shows students would fare better in more diverse communities. But we would suggest that there is power in an emphasis on the community itself rather than only fixing the issue from inside the school building.

For example, caring about a neighborhood or a town feels just as powerful a unifier and a source of community identity as a high school, maybe even more so. All the activities listed as “school spirit” unifiers in the article are also common community unifiers; isn’t that why we cheer for professional sports teams and for our athletes who compete in the Olympics? So, why not let communities work from the outside in? Let cities use education policy to reduce concentrated poverty to change the schools in the community. Every teacher knows that although they can only control what’s happening inside the classroom, so many day-to-day issues are problems students bring to school with them.

And this is where our solution might seem shocking. The same, villainous tactic mentioned as a threat to unity has been shown as a potential path for retaining middle-class families in urban areas. The real villain is not school choice; it’s a lack of effective education options in poor communities. If families feel like they have opportunities for their children to receive a good education, they are more likely to 1) remain in their current neighborhood and continue to make a difference there and 2) create the diverse communities that we all want. Most people spend less than 3% of their lives on their school campus, leaving a whopping 97% of their lives away from school. So, consider changing a place by allowing families to stay in or move to places without feeling like they need to escape an assigned school. Check out a very different way of thinking about school choice; school choice as a community builder.

Image via David Yu