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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Savage Misunderstandings About Choice

Jonathan Kozol is astute and well informed about some of the ways that choice programs are imperfect and, in fact, may perpetuate “savage inequalities.” What Kozol fails to understand, however, is that there is a difference between “school choice” and “school choice programs.”
For 15 years I taught in the experimental “schools of choice” of New York City's Community School District #4 in East Harlem. As imperfect as such programs may be, I know from my teaching in neighboring, choice-less inner-city districts that schools of choice are far better.
The idea of choice does not simply pertain to equity in school placements. Central is the student's sense of ownership of the school and of his or her own education—as a stakeholder rather than a submissive draftee. In places like East Harlem, school choice has shown tremendous potential for transforming youngsters from captive, disenfranchised malcontents to true students involved in the process of their education.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: If students are not in school studying because they choose to be, then why are they there? Without choice, the answer is what William Glasser calls “coercive education,” otherwise known as traditional schooling. Forcing students to attend school and study specified material without any choice does not work well. Further, to take a page out of Kozol's own book, the only segment of society where traditional (non-choice) schooling tends to work at all is in the affluent majority community. Thus, schools without choice represent more savage inequality than school choice could ever create.
I agree with Kozol that the school choice programs we have seen so far (including the one in East Harlem) are often unsuccessful. However, I feel that we must work hard to correct, not eliminate, them. If as he states, “large numbers of the kids who nobody wants end up concentrated in the schools that no one chooses except by default,” then we must ensure that every school in every district is worthy of being chosen and that the districts create schools that want to serve at-risk students. School choice can only aid in achieving these objectives.
I cannot call to mind the term “school choice” without conjuring up images of hundreds and hundreds of inner-city youngsters in the classrooms of East Harlem. For so many of them, their presence in a school of choice ensured success, whereas assignment to a generic, traditional school would have ensured failure.
Choice is more than just another in a long string of appealing ideas. Choice is a big and essential idea that embodies all of the values of progressive education and puts them on the line. It is an aspect of education that we cannot do without.

Mark Gura has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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