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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Panel analyzes school choice debate

Panelists examined the growing movement to allow families to choose their child’s school Tuesday night in a discussion on school choice titled “To Choose or Not to Choose.”

The panelists included director of teacher formation and education policy at the Alliance for Catholic Education, John Schoenig, who said he wanted to emphasize the importance of staying true to intentions. 

“I would imagine that the perspectives on what education reform means in the first place is as varied as the number of people in the room. I don’t like giving advice, but I do like contradicting myself, so I’ll tell you this: It’s very important that you find ways to decouple, divest, separate ... your purpose and the means to get to your purpose, to effect social change,” he said.

Schoenig said the focus of the movement should be to provide children with the best education possible.

“We too often allow ourselves to get too tied to the methods to get our things done. What is the purpose you believe in? What you’ll find, if you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll say your purpose is making sure that every child has an equal opportunity at education. But your means to get there may change,” Schoenig said.

Maria McKenna, senior associate director of education, schooling and society at the Institute for Educational Initiatives, spoke about the many changes that have occurred over the past 40 years in regards to early education.

“To get us situated in the landscape, 40 years ago looks so different than today. In the 90s, we made this choice that one of the ways we’re thinking about leveling that playing field is that we’re allowing these kids to go to schools that weren’t operated by the school district,” McKenna said.

The change came from a state level due to certain revelations, Schoenig said. 

“In 1990, we came to a place where we realized that maybe the state doesn’t need to operate all of the schools it regulates or funds, it’s not that far to say that it doesn’t have to have to operate any school it funds,” he said. “The entire landscape had changed into a choice-based marketplace. It’s probably here to stay, and now it’s about trying to figure out how to best deal with it.”

“The idea of having options, and equating that with a market-based system, is not necessarily a bad thing,” McKenna said.

Notre Dame MBA student Steven L’Huereux spoke on his experience working in New Orleans as an educator in one of the worst-performing areas of Louisiana.

“For the last four years, I’ve been working in charter schools down there. We had to enroll 550 brand new students, and at that point, there was no common application for all the schools. They would have to travel to a school, fill out the form and it was really difficult,” L’Huereux said.  

To solve this problem, the recovery school district centralized the process through the OneApp, a system designed to streamline the application process, he said. 

“Now, you can rank the schools in terms of which ones you wanted to attend. Regardless of where these students lived, they could apply to any school that participated in the OneApp,” L’Huereux said.

This influx of options has afforded children with more options than they were allowed 40 years ago, according to Schoenig.

“Take the inner city closest to your home and imagine being a marginalized child living there. In almost every one of those inner cities, those children have many, many more options to choose than they did 40 years ago,” Schoenig said.

Schoenig said education is more than a policy or a social change issue.

“If today’s conversation is about choice, it’s not really about any of that other stuff, it’s about human dignity,” he said.  “If you think about marginalized children and families in that city and the things they have to decide, the choices they have to make. All of the choices you make every day, to go across the way and get Starbucks or to get coffee from elsewhere, these aren’t choices these families can make. The effect of educating by zip code is to deny people the access to choice that we used to have.”