School Choice Advocates Should Visit Some Schools


As I have continued to research the “school choice” movement, it seems that advocates often simply don’t have a very good idea of what modern comprehensive schools look like. The truth is that large schools often offer a model of choice–right within the school.

Mike Petrilli of the very pro-school choice Fordham Institute argues that school choice is appropriate for suburban schools and students because he believes that there are three types of affluent parents: Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges; Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little; The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world.

Setting aside the almost absurd caricature of parents Petrilli created, his list of types of parents does little to advance his case that suburban schools need to offer more choice. The truth is that contemporary, large, suburban schools offer students exactly the kind of choice he calls for–from rigorous college prep to vocational training, from arts-focused education to career preparation academies.

That’s what large suburban schools do. They create a wide variety of programs for their students, because effective school administrators recognize that students need to be reached through different approaches and presented with distinct opportunities. And they manage to do it in accredited institutions, a requirement that  conservative Montana lawmakers seem content to dispense with.

At my high school, students have exactly the options that Petrilli argues choice would provide.  Students take the AP exam in 8-10 subjects annually at the same time we offer electives in the academic and business fields Petrilli argues for. Even better, students don’t have to choose at the age of 14 which field to pursue; many of my students take the rigorous preparation the mythical Tiger Moms demand at the same time they pursue art, music, and business.

The truth is that the broad choices a comprehensive public school can provide is the best kind of choice for students–one that doesn’t lock them into a field of study before they’re ready to make the choice and one that doesn’t constrain their options, but expands them

The state has even created an effective option for students to take courses simply not offered at home in the form of the Montana Digital Academy. Want to take AP Literature? Oceanography? Native American studies? Creative Writing? Students can do it there, expanding their range of choices.

That’s the situation here in Montana. Large school districts are providing the kind of choice that advocates call for already–and they’re doing it while educating students of all different ability levels and interests. Smaller districts, with declining populations and wide distances between them, are doing their best to bridge the gap with online offerings. Those communities will simply never be able to affordably achieve the “choice” goals that advocates are calling for.

And therein lies the problem for Rick Hill’s call for school choice in Montana. Our large schools are already doing it, and our small students cannot benefit from what advocates call for. If Rick Hill really wants to improve choice for Montana kids, he should focus on ensuring adequate funding that will expand student options, not embracing untested, unsupported “choice” models that simply don’t meet the needs of our students.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Did he suggest there might also be a sort of cosmotigrokoala combo-flavor, affluent parent-type? You’ve just got to know hot and trendy buzzwords like Petrilli’s are going to catch a conservative’s eye and give her the only ammo she needs to perpetuate the rhetoric that plagues any possibility of us having progressive, bipartisan conversation.

    I can safely say my parents, as a unit (no room for split/divorced couples in this parent-type categorization scheme is there?), did not fit Petrilli’s bill, and even more that public education in Helena gave me considerably more “choice” than many of my peers and colleagues hailing from all parts of the country. Sure, I can call to mind some who had the privilege to attend [accredited] private schools that gave MORE choice than my public school, and that performed better nationally than most public schools–they typically paid in between $10,000 and $25,000/year. This is quite a sum to pay, even for parents in our highest tax brackets; it enables the school to employ teachers at higher salaries and thus to be more selective in hiring processes, and certainly gives parents more option in weighing decisions about where to send their kids. In my mind, it seems this system can only be sustainable in an urban environment, where there exists the demographic that can first establish it, then support it.

    I noticed in your last post on “choice” reform that most dissenting comments fell back on a free-market argument, asserting competition would eventually produce elite institutions like we see in New England and densely populated regions of the country. Nevermind the fact that this would take time–were it possible at all in such a small state–and that there would be a transitional lapse that would leave at least a single high-school class (one too many IMHO) hanging while the private market educators got there ducks in a row. The free-market argument seems to contradict what I’ve always heard (I’m no expert in economics) is the #1 tenet of economics: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, especially when speculation doesn’t like the profitability of it’s content.

    Are there any arguments coming from the pro-school choice side of the aisle that lay down a specific framework for how it could actually work given the socioeconomic status of the average Montanan?

    • Thanks for the comment–and the insight from the perspective of someone who attended high school more recently than I have.

      Unfortunately, Petrilli doesn’t seem capable of imagining a world with single-parent families or the kind of kids and parents who have dozens of interests, like the ones I know.

      I think you’re absolutely right. There’s no economic model for the kind of choice these Montana legislators are talking about. They’re talking about diverting resources from schools which already provide an enormous amount of choice for students to pay for specialized, often religious, untested alternatives–largely because they don’t like public employees.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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