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Why 'school choice' matters—even if you don't have a kid




What is a 'good' school? Do all the choices out there make it easier or harder to find?
What is a 'good' school? Do all the choices out there make it easier or harder to find?
Roman Königshofer via Flickr Creative Commons

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Parents throughout L.A. have been on the hunt since last fall for a "good" school for their children. And now, many are finding out whether they got in. 

But what is a "good" school? Even if you don't have kids, it's something to consider.

Just think about where some of your tax dollars go and what a so-called "good" school in your neighborhood can do to home prices. Or about what a widening achievement gap means for the future of the economy.

In big cities like L.A., there are lots of schools to choose from, but is that really a good thing?

SCPR Education Reporter Kyle Stokes and L.A. parents Benjamin Henwood, Emily Simon and Brandi Jordan joined Take Two to discuss.

Why so many choices?

'School choice' is something that we don't really think about, but it's actually been a facet of major school district education going way back decades. In L.A., the magnet school program goes back to 1977, that's when it first got started under desegregation. It was a means of removing the problem of racial isolation in schools.

As the years have gone on it's taken on a little bit of a different flavor. People talk about 'school choice' as a means of breaking people out of the zip code that they're in. There's this critique that you hear a lot from many different corners that says 'no child's success in school should be determined by the zip code in which he lives.'

What does the term 'school choice' mean?

It refers to going to a school outside of your neighborhood or home school, using any different number of options— charter schools, magnet schools, anywhere where you're applying to a situation where you're not going to the school down the block or the zone in which you live.

And that appeals to people from a lot of different sides of the political spectrum. People on the left love to think about it in terms of equality of outcomes. When it comes to people being able to have economic opportunity in this world, you need to go to a good school. On the right a really interesting emerging story line is that public school systems are a monopoly because they're so big and so impenetrable, and that's kind of accountable to no one, so the argument goes. And that's why school choice has become such a popular option for so many people.

How widespread is 'school choice'?

There is a really interesting report that surveyed parents in eight different big cities— Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, D.C. And they bear out what I think you'll find in a lot of big cities all across the country. The survey suggests 55 percent of parents are exercising school choices. And it wasn't just those kind of active, involved, well-educated parents with master's degrees. It found 59 percent of parents with some college or more were exercising school choice, but so were 49 percent of people with a high school education or less. It's a very universal phenomenon.

When it comes to schools for our children, are more choices a better thing?

I think the jury is out on that in a lot of respects. You look at people who are supporters of charter schools for instance who say charter schools are a major means of driving equity and providing other options. But then in the macro view, you look at the differences between a charter school and a regular school district school and, on balance,  those even out. Charters don't perform any better or any worse.

The other issue is desegregation and that's one of those issues where the jury is also still out. Magnet schools for instance were a means of ending segregation in schools back when it was first rolled out here in L.A., but I think now if you look at the evidence, the anecdotal evidence is maybe that it's the parents who are affluent, who are best able to navigate the system, that are using school choice to find the best outcomes for their kids and thus resegregating schools. It's not clear that that's happening but it's a possibility. The research is still not proven on that, but it's possible that 'school choice' is exacerbating this long-standing problem that we've had.

Why should people who don't have kids care about this?

If you don't have kids that go to public schools, I think you still have to care about the outcomes of public schools. If you look at our country versus other developed nations around the world and you look at our levels post-secondary, college or career-ready attainment, you absolutely have to be worried. You absolutely have to be worried about the problem of the achievement gap where students of color and white students or privileged students don't have the same outcomes that we would like to see if we want to have a healthy economy. The future of our economy is at stake here.

What L.A. parents have to say:

Emily Simon, a writer/producer and Eagle Rock magnet school parent:

"I would talk myself into 'oh it's fine it's fine we'll do what we need to do when we need to do it' and then I would wake up as if out of a nightmare, just heart pounding, sick to my stomach. Because I care so much about my son's future, every parent cares about their child's future. And you're made to think that this will determine everything. That where your child goes to kindergarten will just project the rest of his life. " 

Brandi Jordan, owner of The Cradle Company, and mother of two children, one who attends a French immersion private school:

"What I'm seeing now in schools, and you would think that it would have grown and become less segregated, [is] that you're getting more of that. And so I think that's part of the issue that I want my kid to also learn what's not in the textbooks. Can they learn about socioeconomic diversity? Are they going to know about a global mindset? Are they going to understand people who live in apartments versus people who live in big houses? That's something that I think is really hard to navigate. When you want the best for your kid, does that mean that you're going to private school and foregoing diversity?" 

Benjamin Henwood, an assistant professor at USC's School of Social Work and a father of twins entering kindergarten:

"It's a big decision to make but I think what I've learned is [that] the sort of wisdom out there on the street, I don't think it holds actually. I know many of the people in the neighborhood who go to the local school who love it, who think it's a great school. I know plenty of people who've gone to the better schools and pulled their kids out— 'better' meaning higher ranked or [higher] scores. So I think some of that has put me more at ease." 

Series: Good Schools

Take Two takes a close look at the education landscape in the Los Angeles area, including its public schools, magnets, charters, private institutions, and dual-language programs. Over the course of the coverage you’ll hear from parents and academics; teachers and kids; and even from a couple of TV show producers about how this obsession with a “good” school in L.A. has seeped into popular culture.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Facebook, or tweet us @Take Two and @KPCC with the hashtag #goodschools.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.