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.
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.
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.