Imagine you are riding on a train and the conductor comes into your car and informs you and your fellow passengers that something is terribly wrong with the engine and the train is in trouble. It might not crash, but it certainly is not going to reach its destination in good shape.
There is, however, some good news. All you need to do is fill out a few forms and explain why you should be one of the few who are taken off the broken train and placed on the shiny, new train that is pulling up alongside. If you are lucky, there will be a brief interview to determine how worthy you are, and if you are one of the chosen few, you will get to finish your ride in style on the fabulous new train.
Chances are, you would be furious at such a proposition, and rightly so. You have already bought your ticket, and you have an expectation to get to the end of the journey after all, and being told you might not arrive in one piece is simply not acceptable. Furthermore, the idea that you essentially have to enter a lottery to be one of the "lucky ones" to get off the train is somehow debasing.
Yet, that is the choice that parents of children in the public school system often find themselves making. If your child's school is failing, or you feel you are just in a bad neighborhood, and you want them to attend another school, you have to fill out a few forms and hope for an interview. The lucky ones will get to move, while the rest, well, maybe they will reach the station in one piece.
Last month, the City Paper published an article on Meeting Street Academy, the shiny, new train that has pulled up alongside the Charleston County School District. It is a private school, one that touts its successes on a shiny website. No doubt, it has made an impact on the lives of the children lucky enough to attend it. Naturally, no one should want to take that away from those children. But the problem is, what about the children left behind?
The private school model, along with the public school system's charter and magnet programs, are doing more harm to public education than they are doing to help the lucky students who are pulled into them.
The result of this system is invariably that failing schools fall apart even faster. After all, the county and the school board have no incentive to fix them since their enrollment is falling. Meanwhile, the "better" schools start to have problems related to the influx of new students. Despite the best efforts of administrators to manage the number of students whose parents choose to move them to a new school, there are schools in the area that have more students than they can properly handle.
This application of a failed "business model" to the public school system reeks of political pandering to a group of people for whom the words "choice" and "freedom" ring certain bells. The idea of school choice is that some children should succeed at the expense of others or, more cynically, that the best outcome is to drive the public school system into the ground and replace it with privately operated, publicly funded schools. Neither of these are acceptable outcomes.
The notion that public schools should adopt the same profit-driven motive as private schools is one of the many lunatic ideas that has been floated around over the course of the last four decades. Not only is this concept wrong — public, taxpayer-funded ventures should not function this way — it is horrible to want a public system to adopt a flawed and morally bankrupt "profit-driven" model.
Again, the failure in these plans is that they irrationally place a value on one school over another. In a properly functioning public school system, there should be no "good" schools versus "bad" schools. All of them should be as equal as possible, and they should function in a way that is maximally beneficial to all students. If this happens, then no one will feel that the grass is greener on the other side of an attendance boundary.
Attempting to apply a free market ideology to the public school system ultimately fails everyone, as the free market ideology is antithetical to the concept of good public policy. Instead of focusing our resources on a few good schools to the detriment of those students unable to get out of the bad schools, we should be lifting up all schools to even higher standards.