Choice in regard to schools and cheeses

During all the discussions about school choice* very little is said, when there is a choice of schools available, about what those choices are. While it may very well be that much more important than having the right to choose one’s school are the number and quality and variety of schools there are to choose from.

Cédric Villani, a 37 year old mathematics professor from Lyon in France, while teaching at Princeton most certainly encountered few if any limitations on his freedom of movement, or his freedom of choice in regard to his living arrangements or his (our) cherished freedoms in regard to most anything else. But, as he noted,** what did all this freedom amount to when, in the town of Princeton, NJ, in the way of good cheeses there was little if anything to choose from?

For what is the value of choice when only look and taste alike cheddars, row after row of pasteurized supermarket brand cheeses, and La vache qui rit are your choices?

For a poor family living in Newark (or even Princeton for that matter) what are the available choices of schooling for their children? There are the district schools including maybe a charter school or two, perhaps a few parochial schools, and certainly in Princeton, but perhaps not in Newark, several private, independent schools.

The parochial school may be out in terms of available places, the private school, when scholarships are no longer available, will be much too expensive, the charter school will have a long wait list, and the district school, with plenty of available places, may very well be a publicly recognized failure in regard to its student test scores and other achievement measures.

This is the precious “choice” that so many write about who write about our schools? This is worse than the no cheeses of Cédric Villani.

If school choice is ever going to become real it has to start with an expansion of available choices. And how to do this is what the reformers should be talking about. Otherwise the whole exercise is futile, like choosing between two or three brands of super market cheddar cheeses.

* Just today, first Ross Douthat in an op ed piece, Grading School Choice,  and a major discussion of School Choice appearing in the current National Affairs, Does School Choice Work?, by Frederick Hess.

** “It was Cédric Villani, a 37-year-old professor at Lyon who won the 2010 Fields Medal, who gave the most spirited reply to France’s critics. Calling himself ‘a pure product of the French system,’ Mr. Villani, a Normalien who has often taught in the United States, said that while American academic salaries were higher ‘and it’s easier to make big projects,’ France also has particular strengths: ‘Our tradition, our quality of life, our social cohesion. My big problem in Princeton was finding a place to buy a decent cheese.'” (Follow this link: France Wrestles With Its 2 Tiers of Higher Education)

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