When is advocating for a diversity of school models immoral?

In many cities I work in, education reform leaders bang the drum of needing more diversity in school models in their cities.

“Choice isn’t choice if all the schools are the same,” is a common statement.

I get where these folks are coming from, and I hope the breadth of effective school models continues to grow. There are still too many kids who don’t thrive in the schools that exits today, and I’m glad there are entrepreneurs who are developing new models, as well as investors and intermediaries that are supporting them.

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At the same time, in many cities, two conditions are present:

1) Tens of thousands of children are attending failing schools.

2) Effective high expectations / high support (formerly called No Excuses) schools have waiting lists.

In other words, families are stuck in failing schools and existing high-performing schools could expand to help them.

Of course, just because these conditions exist doesn’t mean that it’s immoral to invest in new school model design.

But the “choice isn’t choice” refrain feels pretty privileged.

When your child is in a decent school, diversity of school model might be exactly what you’re looking for in a better option.

But when your child is in a failing school, you’re often just looking for an effective school who will nurture your child’s academic and personal growth – and if that school already exists in your city, you’re simply trying to get in.

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To put a rough marker on there, if the aforementioned conditions exist in your city (many students in failing schools, many good schools with waiting lists), I think you should be devoting a good ~80% of your philanthropic funds on getting kids out of failing schools and expanding schools that are working.

If you’re allocations are reversed, and you’re spending the majority of your resources on new school models, I think you’re actions are not in the best interests of the children who are being harmed in failing schools.

If I had to argue against myself, I’d say that increasing the diversity of school models will increase the diversity of parents sending their children to public charter schools, which will strengthen the pro-charter political coalition. I’d also argue that new entrepreneurs and new models might pressure the incumbents to continue to adapt. Moreover, I’d argue that a real new school model breakthrough might prove to be more scalable than existing models, so investing in new models might help more kids sooner than scaling existing models. Lastly, I’d argue that all children, not just children in failing schools, deserve great school options.

I do agree with these counterarguments, but, for me, the near term weight of the moral good still sits with helping the children who are currently stuck in failing schools.

Hence my 80% / 20% calculation.

So yes, let’s keep on trying to develop new school models, but let’s make sure to check the privilege of making this argument with too much force, especially in cities where existing good schools have room to serve more kids who are stuck in terrible situations.

5 thoughts on “When is advocating for a diversity of school models immoral?

  1. William Murphy

    I think a misstep your making is in assuming that saying “choice isn’t choice…” is rooted in privileged.

    I’ve met countless parents who express this sentiment because they ARE stuck in failing schools (or in schools in which 57% of children are earning a “basic” score and that is somehow deemed a success by the #PRmachine). I’ve similarly met many parents who want to opt out of a high control school environment where “No Excuses” has been (mis)interpreted as demand and command discipline rather than simply a high bar of outcomes expectation. Yes there are many “No Excuses” schools where the wait-list is long, but there are equally many at which it is the justification for racist and classist practices applied to children. I do not think either parent is operating from a place of privilege necessarily.

    I’d argue that any privilege derived from the school into which one falls is trumped by race, class, and gender derived privilege or its lack. So, for example, a single African American father who comes from a low income background but sought a great Design Thinking/Maker Space charter school isn’t really speaking from a position of privilege if he says, “I wish we had fewer command and control No Excuses options and more Montessori options for my kids.”

    Calling for varied options might be rooted in privilege if one doesn’t have any skin in the game because one has opted out of public schooling altogether. But then again, that really only applies to people who are sitting on a pile of personal wealth and are paying to enroll their child in an expensive private school despite perhaps having leadership roles in public education. When such people express that they think more options are needed, that does seem pretty disingenuous and privileged as do most of their missives. However, a mother from a low income background who cobbles together $4000 for a neighborhood Catholic School or takes advantage of a scholarship program surely isn’t privileged when expressing that she wishes she didn’t have to pick up extra shifts in order to cover tuition.

    I think I agree with your ultimate conclusion regarding an investment strategy. But I’d wonder if you are defining schools that are working, children who are being harmed, and successful/failing schools differently than some of the parents we serve. I can think of many schools with data that would make some people say they were not failing, but a mediocre pass rate and an oppressive school culture is not one I’d choose for my strong-willed Black son. His capacity to sit in SLANT is not a measure of success I want applied to him. Such schools have, in New Orleans, hit a now multi-year plateau and it may require a more than 20% investment in innovation to move beyond an average 56% rate of Basic+.

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Bill – good to hear from you. Few points:

      1. Sounds like we might end up in (roughly) same place on investment.
      2. While I don’t think No Excuses schools are end all be all, they are way way way better than the worst of NOLA failing schools, especially before storm.
      3. In my hypothetical, I noted that the existing schools had waitlists, which is at least some sign of demand.
      4. Unfortunately, we don’t have a ton of maker space type schools that have done great things for low income kids. I don’t think this is mostly driven by lack of philanthropic support; rather, I think it’s because not enough school entrepreneurs have figured out how to make it work.
      5. I hope more entrepreneurs do!

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  2. Scott Benson (@scottb_edu)

    Thought provoking piece, Neerav. I also appreciate William’s response above (particularly now that I know he typed it all out on an iPhone!).

    A few additional things to consider:

    You ultimately argue for a balanced approach that allocates the majority of funding to proven networks while retaining a portion for new entrants whose models depart in meaningful ways from the status quo. I agree with such a both/and approach because I believe that in time it will create a stronger, more dynamic ecosystem that provides opportunities for new ideas and, as a result, greater choice for students and families with different needs. A few thoughts:

    1. Philanthropy likely isn’t nor should it be the sole source of growth capital. Public funds, which tend to be more risk averse, are more likely to flow to “proven” organizations. The result may be that a greater percentage of available philanthropy can be used for risk capital for new models without compromising the balance you’d seek.

    2. Existing networks can adapt/change/improve their models as they replicate to offer greater choice to families while taking advantage of existing infrastructure. Let’s not lose sight of that type of investment as we seek to diversify options for families.

    I’m out of time but happy to continue the conversation…

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Thanks, Scott.

      Agree on public vs. philanthropic. Good point. Agree CSP type funds better on proven.

      And yes on existing, though generally a trade off between scale and adaptation.

      -N

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