Flipping Out: Controlled Choice Restricts Options

Mike Petrilli and Rick Kahlenberg are among my favorite people (I don’t know Sam Chaltain, although I might like him, too), but their piece in Sunday’s Washington Post smacks of nanny-statism rather than school choice and educational effectiveness. (Rick has had such tendencies for a while.)

What they propose—known as “controlled choice”—isn’t all that different from the “forced busing” of yesteryear. It restricts families’ education options and imposes a top-down, government-run, social-engineering scheme based on somebody’s view of the value of racial and socioeconomic integration. It depends on a bureaucrat’s “algorithm” to decide how many left-handed, blue-eyed kids get to go to which schools and how many other kids in those schools will be right handed and brown eyed. (OK, I made up those categories.)

The authors posit that “diversity” per se is an important educational benefit and that integration is good for kids and must therefore be imposed on them, like it or not. And they’re upset that demographic changes underway in various D.C. neighborhoods—gentrification, for the most part—are causing schools in those places to lose their previous ethnic and economic profiles. The inflow of middle- and upper-middle-class families, many of them white, initially “integrates” schools that had previously taught mostly poor, minority youngsters, but eventually squeezes out the latter and “resegregates” the schools with a much paler (and wealthier) complexion. The authors want to brake that second change in order to capture and preserve the “diversity” wrought by the first one.

It’s a fact of life that cities change, just like countries and families and individuals do. People move around. Mike, Rick, and Sam want to curb the parts of that movement that they don’t like. But they might as well propose to reverse the Potomac. In a free society, government cannot control where people live, and it’s another fact of life that a great many parents want their kids to attend schools near their home. Many of them also want to pick which school their children will attend. Yes, some want their kids to attend schools with youngsters who look like them. On the other hand, we also know (in part from Fordham research) that some—maybe one in five—do value “diversity” in their kids’ schools (provided, of course, that those schools also supply the basics). Such families are apt to hunt for schools (and maybe neighborhoods) where options of that sort exist.

But Mike, Rick, and Sam want to constrain everybody’s options. They don’t want the education “market” to work for fear it won’t produce the results they favor. They don’t like the direction the river is running and they deplore some of its tributaries, so they want their own version of the Corps of Engineers to redirect and channel it, by supplying enough canals and dams and pumps to tame it.

Why don’t they settle instead for ensuring that the water is drinkable, swimmable, and able to support fish by demanding evidence that schools are effective at educating those who attend them? (At Fordham, we favor that obligation for private schools that accept vouchers, too.)

But they’re onto one decent idea: allowing charter schools more say over who attends them, thereby helping them to specialize in more of the niches that parents favor. Diversity would surely be one such. Giftedness might be another. Special ed. Language immersion. Music and art. STEM subjects. To some extent, just declaring a school’s specialty and being good at it will draw families that seek that niche, but schools will get better at their specialty if they can impose some entrance criteria. That’s easy to picture in the case of, say, a music school. (You should be able to sing or play an instrument.) It’s trickier when your specialty is “diversity.” Parents will inevitably complain when their child is turned away for not being the right color or income level, and the Supreme Court probably won’t like it, either. This will take work. But giving families school options that they favor—effective school options, please—is good for everyone. So is letting rivers flow downhill.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog. It is in response to this piece by Sam Chaltain, Richard Kahlenberg and Michael J. Petrilli. Mike Petrilli responds here.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College