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(Guest Post by Shannon Stackhouse Flores)

As a graduate of a doctoral program at a large public university, to even say the words “school choice” or “Catholic education” causes me to cringe in fear of retribution from many of my colleagues. For this reason, I have hesitated in the past to identify myself with the school choice movement, at least as a political concept.

In order to expand the reach of my passion, however, I think it is very important to define for myself and for others my convictions at this moment, as a fairly young researcher. It is impossible to deny that my viewpoint has been very much formed by my own schooling experiences (Catholic K-8, magnet high school, private undergraduate institution, Catholic graduate school and public graduate school) as well as by the foundational fact that I am black and Catholic, the latter largely a result of my elementary experience.

That out of the way, one of my hesitations in joining this debate has been that despite a great fondness for Catholic education, I chose to enter the field of education policy NOT primarily in order to further the aims and viability of Catholic schools, but rather to be part of the contingent of people really pushing for greater justice within the educational system at large. My general passion is for children, particularly poor and minority (be they Catholic or non-Catholic) who daily suffer the injustice of low quality education. My concern is for kids who attend schools that are at best places to go to get off the streets and at worst just as dangerous as the neighborhoods from which they come. I have recently been researching some Chicago public school data (not to point fingers; this just happens to be the data I have been researching) and while I am fully aware of all of the difficulties inherent in using testing data – particularly as a snapshot and in the aggregate – to measure performance, I ran across some such data that was truly horrifying. More or less randomly, I encountered multiple public high schools in which only 15% or 20% of students met state testing standards in reading and math. Regardless of what the specific standards are, this means that a majority of those students will leave school not knowing how to read or perform calculations at even the most basic of levels. It literally turns my stomach that there are hundreds of youth, still children really, who are going to leave school unequipped with even the basic level of skills with which to survive in our society, much less having the opportunity to thrive in our knowledge economy. For those schools to even be called schools is to me a crime against humanity, specifically that of the children they purport to serve. (Note: I understand/believe that in many places, schools are called upon to do far too much; essentially to function in dysfunctional communities. That is a topic for another post. For now, let us just consider it at the very least a crime of our society against a portion of itself that we allow schools like this to exist.)

The fact is that there are schools that do succeed with poor and minority kids: some charter, some private, some Catholic, some public. I believe that schools that do succeed in this area MUST be rewarded. Perhaps any school that meets certain academic standards and brings poor and minority children up to grade level (or beyond) could receive some amount of funding… and those schools, of all kinds, that are serving their student populations the worst, can be closed and their funding redirected.

I know that the issue of church/state separation is not trivial, do not consider it so myself. But there must be a way to create standards by which as long as certain ideals are upheld (and others explicitly not proffered), and as long as all publicly funded schools share some common ways of measuring success, we can begin to better sustain schools like those inner-city Catholic schools that have historically maintained that poor immigrant and brown children CAN learn, and have a system already in place for ensuring that they do.

At the end of the day, we really need to increase the urgency of this issue. I do not know or really care to know what political label to place upon my viewpoints, but I do know that as a new mother, my little family’s near limitless freedom of educational opportunity is very clear and extremely valuable to me. Also crystal clear is the fact that nothing is as important to me as ensuring that my daughter will be safe, happy, and loved by all to whose care she is entrusted; and that every possible opportunity be available to her. Every child deserves all of those things. I know that “my people” as a whole still fail to secure these very basic human necessities at far too great a rate. We know how important education is in improving quality of life along every dimension. We just need to work harder, more quickly, and with greater passion to extend access to quality schools to those who need it the most.

(Guest Post by Daniel Bowen)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “school choice?”  For me, it’s spaghetti sauce.  Now, before you begin psychoanalyzing my mental association of education and Italian cuisine, let me explain.

The evolution of spaghetti sauce exemplifies the importance of variability in a marketplace.  Back in the 1980s, Prego hired Dr. Howard Moskowitz to find a sauce better than that of the sauce champion of the day, Ragu.  However, after extensive field research on consumer preferences, Moskowitz would ultimately fail to find the “Holy Grail of Sauces.”  Instead, he concluded that there was no perfect sauce.  Rather, diversity in tastes and preferences of consumers dictated the need for several “perfect sauces.”  (Malcolm Gladwell gives an extensive overview of Moskowitz’s research – found here).

While you would be hard-pressed to find an adversary to an increase in spaghetti sauce options (except maybe Ragu at the time), increasing school choice is much more contested.  Moskowitz’s research and arguments may focus on spaghetti sauce, but these can be applied to school options too.  Let’s look at three of the central arguments Moskowitz makes for spaghetti sauce variability and apply them to school choice:

1. Informing Consumers

Spaghetti Sauce: Moskowitz discovered that consumers liked variety if given proper information.  The majority of consumers aren’t product innovators or experts.  So, when Prego initially surveyed the public about what they wanted, they either didn’t know or simply reiterated the qualities of sauces they already consumed.  However, after experimenting with recipes and making people aware of different types of sauces, one in three consumers would ultimately prefer chunkier sauce. They just didn’t know this preference until they were made aware of and offered such a sauce.

Schools: Schools work the same way.  One of the great obstacles to an effective system of choice is providing information for choosers.  A parent may be familiar with the schools they went through, but they may not be aware of other options.  As a case and point, many first year D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) parents admit that they sent their children to schools without even making a visit to the school.  They just heard or presumed the school was good based on reputation.  Parents may unknowingly prefer single-sex education or greater emphasis on the fine arts.  They might just be unaware that such options exist.

2. Horizontal Segmentation

Spaghetti Sauce: Once the notion that other options exist, it becomes clear that consumers have a wide range of preferences.  Some consumers prefer a “garden fresh” sauce.  Others long for something spicier.  The key to satisfying a given consumer is not found in a singular, magical recipe.  Moskowitz found that a plurality of those surveyed preferred a chunkier sauce, but he warned Prego to not be simply satisfied with altering their main sauce.  Instead, he advocated that Prego would benefit more from casting a wider net to meet the needs of more consumers.

Schools: Once again, the same goes for schools. Some parents want religious instruction.  Others long for something spicier.  Different students have different needs.  Different parents have different preferences.  Simply tweaking one “recipe” does not suit the needs of the entire market.  Variability in both cases is the key to satisfying a diverse group of consumers.

3. Challenging the “Platonic Dish”

Spaghetti Sauce: The initial resistance to trying different sauce recipes stemmed from producers deferring to “experts.”  Spaghetti sauce chefs and their recipes, prior to Moskowitz, mostly stuck with tradition.  It was believed that there was a singular, best way to mass produce sauce and no one challenged the “experts.”  Moskowitz warned that this mentality would deter innovation and its byproducts.

Schools: Just like sauce producers, parents often defer to the “experts.”  Traditionally, with the exceptions of homeschoolers and private school attendees, parents would enroll their children in the neighborhood public school and this was held as the best way to mass educate students.  However, like sauce, strictly adhering to the “Platonic Dish” restricts our ability to innovate new and better ways to educate our nation’s students.

Moskowitz’s research would ultimately make Prego hundreds of millions of dollars from just their line of extra-chunky sauces.  And, if you need further evidence of Moskowitz’s impact, just spend a little extra time in the pasta aisle next time you frequent the grocery store.  Catholic schools have certainly demonstrated how catering to new tastes can spark innovation through the creation of new school formats found in Cristo Rey, the Notre Dame ACE Academies, Catholic School K-12 Virtual, the numerous single-sex schools provided, etc.  Hopefully, we will see the number of schooling options made available to parents become as expansive as our spaghetti sauce options.