Over the past few decades, Americans have witnessed an explosion in public school choice—the ability to choose a magnet school, a charter school, or an out-of-boundary public school. While the neighborhood public school still remains the norm for most American children, the number of families who chose a non-neighborhood public school increased by 45 percent between 1993 and 2007. Nationally, more than a quarter of parents choose a school other than the public school their children are assigned by neighborhood to attend. In New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend charter schools, and in Washington, D.C., 44 percent of public school students attend charters and another 28 percent choose out-of-boundary public schools.
The rise in school choice is not hard to understand. In a culture where parents are accustomed to enjoying a wide variety of choices in most facets of their lives, they also like the idea of choosing a public school that meets the individual needs of their children.

Our School:
Searching for Community in the
Era of School Choice

by Sam Chaltain
Teachers College Press, 208 pp.

But education reformers have advocated school choice for larger public purposes as well. Teachers union leader Albert Shanker, for example, first proposed charter schools in 1988 as a vehicle for empowering teachers to tap into their expertise and create new teaching methods and approaches from which traditional public schools could learn. Shanker and other early advocates of charters also saw the opportunity to move beyond schools that reflect residential neighborhood segregation by race and class, drawing children from a variety of backgrounds who could learn from one another. Over time, even conservatives advocated charters and other forms of choice as a way of boosting competition between schools and fostering innovation.

In Our School: Searching for Community in an Era of School Choice, the author and consultant Sam Chaltain looks into how these theories play out in practice at two schools located in Washington’s mixed-income and racially diverse Columbia Heights/Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. One, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School, is a brand-new elementary school whose founders made the most of their chance to “start a new school from scratch.” Teaching in Spanish and English, the school focuses on environmental sustainability and hands-on expeditionary learning, in which students delve deeply into a topic for weeks at a time, producing original research and presenting the results to the public.

The other school, Bancroft Elementary, founded in 1924, is a traditional public school that educated some of the parents and grandparents of current students. But Bancroft also draws almost half of its population through out-of-boundary transfers. And, like Mundo Verde, it divides classes into sections that are alternatingly taught in English and Spanish.

One of the strengths of this thoughtful, highly readable book is that Chaltain, himself a former teacher, takes the concerns of teachers, parents, and students seriously as he spends an entire school year observing them in action. If some education policy analysts view teachers as workers to be tested, coaxed, better “distributed,” and (sometimes) “weeded out,” Chaltain sees them as flesh-and-blood human beings who often work extraordinarily hard to improve the lives of children such as Albert, who has never met his father and never will, or Harvey, who knows the local cops because they visit his home so often to settle domestic disputes.

As the book opens, Chaltain introduces us to two kindergarten teachers at Mundo Verde: Molly Howard, an idealistic Yale graduate and former policy wonk, and Bernice Pernalete, who immigrated to Houston as a child from Venezuela. These teachers, like educators in 88 percent of charter schools nationally, are not unionized. Charter advocates tout the absence of unions as a strength because it is easy to fire bad teachers and reward great ones. But it comes with a large downside: lower pay, fewer benefits, and longer hours. In the view of some, Chaltain writes, Mundo Verde created “an organizational model that relied on smart single women whose social lives would allow for crowded workweeks and little else.” The lack of union representation also means teachers have no one to help them mediate their concerns. At one meeting Chaltain sits in on at Mundo Verde, he observes two teachers who complain about a lack on teacher input, but “then quickly censored themselves. ‘So we don’t get fired.’”

Lacking voice, many charter teachers exit. Research finds that the rate of teacher turnover at charters is roughly double that at traditional public schools. And the nonunion environment in charters can create an adversarial relationship with unionized public schools. Kristin Scotchmer, Mundo Verde’s inaugural executive director, told Chaltain she worried “whether charters will find ways to work collaboratively with other public schools in the city.” Shanker’s vision, of teacher-led schools that would share ideas with traditional public schools, had been turned on its head.

But Chaltain hardly depicts Bancroft, with its unionized workforce, as a paradise for teachers. He focuses on two third-grade teachers, Rebecca Lebowitz, a recent Brown graduate, and Rebecca Schmidt, a young Grinnell graduate, who feel discouraged by the challenges their students bring (only 5 percent read at grade level), by the general dysfunction of the District of Columbia school system, and by D.C.’s intensive focus on judging teachers by student test scores. Both of these highly effective teachers end up leaving at the end of the year. Altogether, Bancroft lost 25 percent of its teachers that year, and at Mundo Verde, three of the four teachers whom Chaltain observed most closely also quit.

Though both schools are located less than half a mile from one another, and both are bilingual, the demographics are quite different. Bancroft, Chaltain reports, is heavily low income and minority: 75 percent of students receive subsidized lunch; 74 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent white, 8 percent black, and 7 percent Asian. Mundo Verde is more racially and economically balanced: 45 percent of students are Hispanic, 27 percent white, 19 percent black, and 5 percent belong to two or more races. Some 33 percent qualify for subsidized lunch. Students go to great lengths to attend Mundo Verde—one took three bus rides every day to get there, and the school has a long waiting list of applicants.

With its healthy racial and economic mix, however, Mundo Verde is an outlier among charter schools. In fact, many charters brag of having campuses that are made up almost entirely of poor and minority students. Some consciously target specific immigrant or racial groups.

Chaltain is an advocate of integrated schooling, in charter schools and in traditional schools, in part as a way of building social cohesion. (Full disclosure: I coauthored an op-ed with him and Michael Petrilli in favor of integration in D.C. schools earlier this year.) Chaltain writes, “The specific landscape of school choice may be new, but the general challenge is as old as the country itself: E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.”

Chaltain does not suggest that socio-economic integration is easy. He acknowledges that it takes a skilled teacher to educate students who come to schools with differing levels of academic preparation. But a mix of students is far less overwhelming than a classroom of highly needy students, and the burnout level of teachers is much lower than in high-poverty schools.

That is what is so exciting about charter schools like Mundo Verde (and magnet schools throughout the country): by virtue of location and an enticing academic program, they have been able to attract a broad cross-section of students. The bilingual program, in particular, vividly illustrates how diversity helps everyone. Spanish-speaking students help English speakers learn Spanish and vice versa. Students from different backgrounds become a resource for one another.

But Chaltain notes that choice, by itself, will not promote equity, citing Michael Sandel’s research on “the moral limits of markets.” Integration often slips away, Chaltain says, and Mundo Verde’s founder worried that “there was no way to guarantee that new families would maintain a healthy mix between English and Spanish speakers.” Weighted lotteries to promote integration could help, but in D.C. that was not permitted.

Some people worry that public school choice can destroy a sense of community as neighborhood children head off to different schools and make different sets of friends. But at their best, if choice programs are designed to support integration, they can create new school communities that transcend the race and class divisions that define so many of our neighborhoods. Chaltain suggests that, in fact, this is a big part of what public schools in America are designed to do—move us beyond segregation to a place where students can celebrate diversity and learn what they have in common as Americans.

This democratic message of integrated schools—that we are all social equals—can be reinforced if school administrators treat their teachers well, as professionals who can contribute to the strength of a school, rather than as factory workers who must be closely supervised. As Chaltain notes, giving teachers and parents and students a say in school affairs can “model democratic principles, practices and policies”—preparing students to be self-governing citizens, which is, after all, the primary rationale for public education in the first place.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.