I was at this town hall meeting about school choice a couple of years ago. At this meeting, there was to be a panel session followed by comments and questions from the audience. I arrived during the audience section. There was a woman addressing the panel. She was pontificating about how her son had an awful time at a local charter school. Apparently, the teachers were “useless,” discipline was “way too strict,” and there was an “extreme lack of services.” Her words didn’t fall on deaf ears as many people in the crowd were nodding in agreement.

The second to last man on the panel addressed her:

“Mam if I’m hearing you correctly you are saying that your son had a bad experience at a charter school but then had a good experience at the IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) school down the street?”

~She nods her head in agreement~

“Well then go there…”

The woman looked taken aback and confused. But those of us in the crowd who understand what school choice actually is weren’t confused at all.

Traditional public schools are part of the school choice ecosystem. Having charter and private options doesn’t preclude attending the usual public options. On the contrary, it’s the traditional education model that prevents students from attending a charter or private school which could potentially better serve them.

It makes sense that the woman was surprised by his response. School choice opponents have intentionally framed school choice as a binary option between charters and traditional public schools. So sometimes when school choice advocates mention public schools as options people are understandably confused. But the point of school choice was never to eradicate traditional public schools, it was to give students additional options when those schools are underperforming. And many of them are underperforming.

This, by the way, is not some new wrinkle in the school choice argument. Virtually all school choice organizations recognize traditional public schools as a key component of choice. Public schools are even celebrated alongside charter and voucher options during National School Choice Week. The fact that traditional public schools are included in the school choice model is the very thing that makes school choice the superior argument. It’s the choice that provides backup when one option doesn’t work out.

One bad charter school is not an indictment against the school choice model… but one bad public school is an indictment against the traditional model because it’s often the only option.

So, the next time you see someone ranting about charters and vouchers in the context of a school choice argument don’t get lost in the weeds with data and anecdotes because those things typically just make people dig their heels in further. If they are dead set against sending their child to a charter remind them that they don’t have to and it’s the very same school choice model they are arguing against that allows them those kinds of options. But caution them that should they ever come to feel the same way about the public school they choose to send their kids to instead, an educational model without choice means they’re stuck.


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