Why school choice is the highest form of fairness

Matthew Levey
Choice and fairness are sometimes cast as values in opposition. This arises from the view that it is unfair to allow some parents to choose their child’s school when others won’t (or can’t). Ultimately, however, choice is the highest form of fairness because it rewards positive behavior and aligns the interests of parents, children, and schools.

This week, I’ll examine the issue from a societal perspective. Next week, I will look at choice from the vantage of the individual family.

Some families can afford private school tuition—often more than $40,000 in New York, and close to that figure in several other major cities. Others move to a suburban district with high property taxes that signify (supposedly) good schools. Some apply to gifted and talented programs. In Brooklyn, we even have a few un-zoned district schools that admit students via lottery. When parents exercise these choices, they are not denounced for acting ‘unfairly.’  The admissions processes of these schools are seldom criticized.

But critics say charter schools that admit kids via lotteries, such as the one my school conducted last week, aren’t fair: We don’t attract enough needy kids, our needy kids aren't needy enough, we don't serve enough special education children, and so on.

As the school’s founder, I spent two years asking parents from across Brooklyn to consider the International Charter School for their kids; I am pleased that many did.

In the week before registration closed, two parents attended our meetings. One mom, who emigrated from Mexico, is unemployed and going through a divorce. Unwilling to send her child to her local elementary school, where just one-quarter of students read at grade level, she applied to seven private schools. Her child was not accepted at any of them. “I’m not poor enough,” she guessed. Luckily, her daughter drew a low number in our lottery and will have the chance to enroll.

Another mom works at a community college and lives in public housing. Her son attends kindergarten at a zoned elementary school in our district. The school’s reputation is improving, yet only 16 percent of the kids currently read at grade level. Her son has a lot of energy; the school says he has ADHD. “But I don't want to medicate him,” she told me. “And I wish his teacher didn't yell at him.” We’ll be able to accept this child, too.

Despite the challenges they and their families face, these parents and 461 others managed to choose ICS. In fact, parents only had to complete a short application that was available on our website twenty-four hours a day; meetings were optional. Parents like these moms invested at least a little time in finding out more and making a choice.

Of course, many others did not. Some might not have agreed with our philosophy and approach. And others, surely, did not get the message—despite fifty meetings in public libraries, bars, hair salons, and community centers. Despite flyers, newspaper ads, Facebook posts, email newsletters, and word of mouth. Despite a city-published school directory and post cards that we mailed to their homes, they did not hear about our free, public school.

Is it unfair that the children of these parents won't have the chance to benefit from our approach? Sure.

To address this challenge, one mom I know proposed that the New York City Department of Education should randomly assign kids to public schools—district and charter—so one would have to compete for slots. “I want to protect the kids whose parents don’t know they need to act,” she said. That’s a fine and selfless impulse—one that would put paid to the oft-repeated lie that charters cream kids, while addressing the segregation in district schools that is a legacy of real-estate redlining and political gerrymandering.

But is her approach fair? Or fairer?

There’s a human instinct to want to protect people, especially children, from making bad choices. But for choice ultimately to have any value, it must encompass the possibility of making a bad choice—and therefore encouraging us to make good ones.

If large urban districts like New York City had a track record of making excellent educational choices on behalf of their less-advantaged citizens, one might plausibly contend that the government knows best. But as even the most casual reader of education news knows, this is not the case.
Society has a clear interest in producing capable, competent citizens who can perfect our far-too-imperfect democracy. To that end, we collect taxes and mandate that children be educated. Yet evidence increasingly shows that families can’t do worse than bureaucrats in selecting the form and locus of that education.

To students and parents like ours, the inextricable connection of choice and fairness could not be clearer. If parents can move, participate in selective programs, and choose private schools (so long as they first pay their property taxes), then I do not see how we can deny them the right to also choose a charter school. Or not.
Matthew Levey is the executive director of the International Charter School, a Brooklyn elementary school opening this fall. His three children attend New York City public schools.