Yesterday afternoon, New America hosted a panel of experts for a discussion of school choice in Washington, D.C. It took Sam Chaltain’s recent book, Our School: Searching For Community in the Era of Choice, as a jumping off point for a productive conversation about education policies that are too often polarized.

Here’s a bit of background on the book: For Our School, Sam spent a year “embedded” in two D.C. elementary schools. One is a traditional district school, one is a new charter startup. It would be easy to write a book with these two case studies and use one or the other to conclude that charter schools are American education’s saving angels—or a demonic pox plaguing the public education system. We see arguments like those all the time.

It’s comparatively less comforting to read arguments that tell us that, oof, the school choice question is complicated.

And, depending on your ideological commitments, you may find books like that compelling. It’s encouraging to read arguments that confirm what we already think about education. They make the world simple—which ultimately leads us to make simpler arguments. Unfortunately, there are two opposing camps constructing their own incompatible echo chambers. If you’re solidly pro-charter all day, every day, and you can’t understand how anyone could find them problematic, know that there is a charter critic out there who is just as implacably convinced that your beliefs—and you, yourself—are horrifying.

It’s comparatively less comforting to read arguments that tell us that, oof, the school choice question is complicated. Sam’s book offers clarity over that easy comfort. Read it, and you won’t find your biases confirmed. Or, to put it better, if you find them confirmed on one page, you’ll find them questioned on the next.

Our event was an attempt to cash the check Sam wrote with his book—we used it to prompt a sophisticated conversation about school choice and community in Washington, D.C. and beyond. The discussion was wide-ranging and touched on a number of questions, including:

  • One of the promises of the charter-school movement was that charters would serve as incubators of innovation from which traditional schools could learn. Has that happened/is that happening in DC?
  • The tension between choice and community—the freedom of choice in DC gives many parents hope that their kids can get into a good school. But it also means that many families play the lottery every year, contributing to huge student mobility rates that can make it hard to strengthen schools. Is the answer more choice—or less?
  • Finally, a charged, related question: charter schools have expanded in DC during a period of steady gentrification. How do these two trends currently interact? How should they interact?

For video of the event, see below:

Video streaming by Ustream

The event also sparked a lively conversation on Twitter at the hashtag #DCSchoolChoice. Here’s a sampling:

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams