I’ve been ragging on Prince William County lately for its execrable elementary math curriculum, but there is something the county gets right: it allows for some degree of school choice.
Here at the eastern end of Prince William, each high school has its “thing.” Woodbridge is known for its arts program, Gar-Field is known for its International Baccalaureate program, Hylton is known for its international studies program, and Potomac is known for its Cambridge program. (I’m less familiar with Freedom and Forrest Park, but I’m sure they also have something to offer.) I have seen kids zoned for one school enroll at another school because they were attracted to a particular offering; I have also seen students take classes in multiple schools for the same reason. As far as I can tell, there is no barrier to parental choice at the high school level in Prince William County provided the parents are willing to transport their kids themselves.
In addition, at the elementary and middle school levels, Prince William County has opened two “traditional” schools – Porter Traditional and Pennington School – that require uniforms and hold the kids to stiffer academic and disciplinary standards. These are billed by Prince William as “schools of choice” because their enrollments are not zoned by region. And for those parents who wish to home school, Prince William has options for them as well. There is, for example, a “Virtual High School” that presently offers twenty full credit courses to students who wish to study at home. I don’t know whether this program will eventually expand, but I think it’s a very good idea. We have the technology now. We should use it!
The old model of public instruction (in which students are bussed by the state to the school they are zoned for) is outdated. Let’s allow parents to take on more responsibility if they so desire and offer a full range of choices at every level.
I honestly can’t fathom, for example, why charter schools arouse such hostility in certain quarters. (Actually, I do know at least one reason, but that will be discussed in Part V.) Clearly, parents – particularly urban parents – like them and want them. In inner city districts especially, charter schools have been so overwhelmed by requests for admission that they have been forced to hold enrollment lotteries to keep their numbers at manageable levels. Critics point to the charter schools which fail, but I’m left wondering why they aren’t nearly as exercised by the failures of the ordinary public schools.
The attacks on home schooling need to stop as well. As SABR Matt suggested in his reply to my first education post, the big problem with public schooling – a problem we will never be able to solve – is the problem of standardization. By necessity, public schools have to tailor their curricula to serve the largest number of children possible, and by necessity, this means papering over individual differences. On the other hand, a home-schooled child is essentially a class of one; he will get the kind of individualized attention that no child in a public school will ever receive. For counter-cultural parents of all types (religious and secular), this is very appealing. They don’t want their kids to be trained to be good little worker bees; they want their kids to be trained to be themselves. If we truly value the freedom of the individual, we should allow these parents to act upon their convictions without penalizing them for their choice.
A few posts ago, I observed that religious and political disputes over the public school curriculum were unsolvable in the public context; on the other hand, if we let parents home school and leave them alone, that might at least alleviate some of the tension and acrimony we see in our periodic Great Textbook Debates. I personally believe it’s a bad idea to teach creationism to a child, but ultimately, unless a child is being beaten, molested, neglected, or emotionally tortured, other parents’ decisions are none of my business – and they are none of yours. (And to those who would say that our nation suffers from the loss of these potential scientists, I would only point out that our publicly educated students aren’t doing well in science either. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that the creationists are at fault.)
Parents have a God-given right to choose how to educate their children. Yes, this right comes with its attendant responsibilities, but attempts to block its exercise in the name of some sort of “common good” will only breed populist discontent and are unconscionably illiberal to boot.