The School Shuffle and the Burden of Inconsistency
Advocates of school choice are correct when they say parents and students should be able to opt out of being railroaded into bad schools because of their zip code. Forcing students into low-performing schools in the name of public education is the antithesis of freedom, and throws up another barrier on the path to opportunity for students who already face many hurdles. Families should absolutely have the ability to determine which school they would like to attend.
However school choice is far from the elixir proponents would like to believe. As an educator who works in a charter school, I see this unintended consequence of school choice: I call it the school shuffle.
All people crave consistency. We need structures and routines in our lives. The benefits of consistency are well-documented, but when people are presented with too many choices, consistency often falls by the wayside.
In fact, it is not uncommon for students to attend as many as three or four different schools over the course of as many years. Sometimes students will leave a school only to return a year later. The mindset of choice leads some to believe that the grass will always be greener, and creates the false impression that there is enough variety among “competing” schools that if you don’t immediately find the one you like you can continue trying new options until you do. Consider a different yet related problem caused by the ubiquity of online dating. Now that there are uncountable options just a right-swipe away, it is easy to fall into the too-many-fish-in-the-sea mindset. Why keep dating someone who has one or two minor flaws when there are so many possible options? Of course, the belief that I will find the perfect mate by swiping right is just as fallible as the belief that I will find a perfect school for my child by trying a new option each year. It is reaching for the unattainable, and in doing so creating inconsistency for children while failing to give them the requisite skills to overcome imperfect situations, an important life skill.
There are nowhere near the number of differentiated options that advocates of school choice would have you believe, but this doesn’t stop families from searching for new options under the mistaken belief that if they keep switching schools they will ultimately find the perfect match. Meanwhile, some students are shuffled among schools, never having time to build relationships with their teachers and peers and not able to learn and adapt to new sets of procedures. Each time students switch schools, new teachers must learn about their emotional and intellectual needs. If this happens once or twice over the course of a K-12 education it isn’t a huge issue. If this happens every year, particularly when students are younger and their brains are still developing, it can have disastrous long-term consequences.
I do believe parents should have the ability to send their children to the school they think is best, however the unintended consequences of school choice threaten to undermine any benefits the freedom to choose a school may bring if students are moving from school to school year after year. The students most likely to be harmed by this inconsistency are precisely those school choice is designed to help: kids from low-income communities who are often forced into their neighborhood school no matter how bad a school it may be.
The burden is on opponents of school choice to propose solutions for a failing status quo, but the burden of addressing the flaws of school choice, and explaining how to ensure that the freedom to choose the best school does not translate into the school shuffle falls on the shoulders of those — like me — who believe that parents should have this option. But that is a topic for a future piece.