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It's time to think differently about school choice

By Lisa Macfarlane, DFER WA State Director

Choice is a part of American culture. We can choose our career path, where we live, who to vote for, and the list goes on. So, it makes sense that the freedom to choose often enters into the political discourse of our nation.

Liberals are usually big on “choice” when it is associated with a woman’s right to choose.

But when that same freedom is mentioned in terms of education, liberals in WA mostly wince and hide. That is because the other side of the political spectrum has mostly led the charge on school choice. Much of the early messages on school choice were anti-public education. They focused too much on breaking up the education monopoly and not enough on what choice means for students and families.

The truth is “choice” in already a big part of our public education system. And the more affluent you are, the more choice you have. In our current system, families that are financially able can move to a school district with great schools to ensure their kids receive an excellent education.

In addition, the school districts populated by higher income parents usually have lots of “choices” within them, as evidenced by the number of their magnet or option schools. In Washington, higher economic parents have historically demanded more choices for their kids. Many have realized that not all kids learn the same way and one size does not fit all children.

While lower income parents absolutely want the best for their kids, they don’t always have the same privileges, tools, or choices. Many live where they can afford to live, regardless of the quality of the school district or the number of educational choices. The school their child gets assigned to may be fine, or it may have been low performing for years and years. Either way there is not much they can do about it unless they can find the funds to move to another higher performing district.

Here in Washington, we need to be honest and acknowledge that most of our current “choice” options are not in fact serving a high percentage of at risk or low-income kids.

It is an inconvenient truth that we still assign children to schools that the superintendent, school board member, or union leader wouldn’t put their own children in.

Which gets me back to “choice.” This week is National School Choice Week -- not something most Democrats in this state talk about because of who typically pushes this agenda. But this year’s effort is bi-partisan and grassroots and it aims to shine a spotlight on the need for effective education options for all American children.

National School Choice participants believe parents and children should have the ability to choose what’s best for their families, whether it be high-performing traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, virtual schools or home schooling.

I want to challenge liberals to think differently about school choice. If choice is good for the goose (middle and upper class kids who have a lot of educational choice in today’s system), why isn’t it good for the gander (poor kids who are shortchanged when it comes to quality choices)?

Lisa Macfarlane is the Washington State Director for Democrats for Education Reform, a co-founder of the League of Education Voters, a past President of Schools First (Seattle's levy and bond committee), the sponsor of two statewide education funding initiatives, and a PCO in the 46th District. Read Lisa's full bio here.