So School Choice (Part III: Parent Motivation)

In the first entry of this series I noted that I was going to look broadly at issues underlying the two major agents in any school choice decision: private schools themselves, and the parents who would move their children.  The first two parts focused on the schools, and now I want to turn my attention towards the parents.

There is a simple, noble assumption that supports the notion that parents should be able to choose somewhere outside of public education for their children to go to school: parents will always act in the best interests of their children to the extent which they are capable.  We build up a cultural myth that being put in charge of the care and raising of a child imbues a person with the unshakeable drive to do right by that child.

This is not the case.

People tend to be remarkably selfish creatures, and the drive to help one’s descendants live better often gets confounded by more immediate needs and motivations.  These confounding factors range from thoroughly understandable (the needs of one’s personal health outweighing the needs of one’s children) to self-serving (wanting to replicate one’s own harmful values in one’s children for the sake of cultural preservation).  Parents don’t get an exemption from these same motivators, no matter how much we may like to imagine that the fact of their progeny instills some kind of inherent virtue in their decision-making.

Let’s speak, briefly, about a kind of parent which doesn’t get much attention in conversations about school choice.  I’ve worked in special education for five years now, and I’ve observed that on the spectrum of parental quality, you have a pretty clear divide between parents who are invested in the well being of their children and parents who aren’t.  This divide is usually found along socioeconomic lines; working class parents tend not to invest as much attention in their child’s education as middle and upper class parents.  Some of that’s understandable because being poor makes life more difficult on a lot of different axes; I have nothing but sympathy for parents who are just trying to make sure their families get by, and I’ll discuss them in more depth in the next post in this series.  At the same time, there are also a number of parents who just can’t be bothered to give their children the support they need.  These are the most frustrating parents to deal with on a professional level, because it often becomes clear from interacting with their children that there are things going on home outside the child’s control that do immense harm to their potential for academic success.  It’s these interactions that leave educators frustrated and shouting at the rest of the country about the importance of stable homes in determining student success.  For those parents, school choice is a laughable idea because they can’t be bothered to put in the effort to make an informed decision about their kids.  The children of those parents would be left in the same rut where they currently exist: locked out of a better option by virtue of being supervised by an irresponsible caretaker.

Keep in mind that this former category of parents is, in my experience, remarkably small.  Most home instability that I’ve seen stems from factors outside the family’s control.

The category that I want to focus more closely on here is the one of parents who are involved in their children’s education.  Specifically, let’s look at the kind of parents who would be most readily able to take advantage of school choice.  Many of these parents are going to be middle class; they have enough socioeconomic power to understand the importance of quality education in building an upwardly mobile life for their children, but they lack the resources necessary to put their kids in those vaunted private schools.  We see this sort of narrative frequently in popular culture; the example that sticks out in my mind is Lorelai Gilmore trying to pay for her daughter’s tuition to attend Chilton.  In Gilmore Girls, that problem’s solved by Lorelai going into debt to her wealthy parents; it’s the access to wealth that opens up Rory’s options for the future.  Parents wanting vouchers imagine themselves like Lorelai in that scenario but without the rich relatives.  The thinking goes that if you just have the government give these folks the money allotted for their children’s education, they’ll use it to send their kids to Chilton.

A lot of them will.

What’s ignored in this equation (and on Gilmore Girls for that matter) is the intersection of race and class going on here.  White parents want to get their kids into “better” schools, which we read as more white and more affluent.  Black parents who have the available resources to worry over their children’s education do the same thing, but typically with less success (it’s funny how we overlook class and cultural factors when we assess kids for potential to succeed in more rigorous educational environments).  School choice ends up being a smokescreen for white parents who can’t afford to pay for it themselves wanting to segregate their white kids from the rest of the populace.  It’s no longer socially acceptable to explicitly not want to send your kids to school with Black and brown children, so you get around that ingrown prejudice by hiding it behind “just wanting the best possible opportunities for your child.”  Never mind that it’s better for the social fabric of our communities if our children spend time around people from different backgrounds and learn how to get along with each other.

I get that this argument is likely to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the pro-school choice crowd.  Folks who are invested in protecting white supremacy always get touchy when you point it out to them.  Still, it’s there, and it needs to be pointed out.  The last entry in this series will move back towards questions more closely concerned with class and the problems school choice imposes on families who simply can’t pick a “better” option for their children’s schooling.


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