Mike Petrilli argues for public school choice in the suburbs today. He suggests that residents in “affluent, leafy suburbs” deserve school choice, too. Okay. Except, mostly, those parents already exercise choice–and inside the public school system.
They just move. Ask any realtor in a plummy neighborhood–most of their potential buyers have more data on the local schools than the state department of education. (In McLean, one of the suburbs Petrilli mentions, a home in the Longfellow Middle School attendance area is seen as even more desirable than one in the adjacent Cooper Middle School area. The reason? An algebra teacher with a reputation for getting students into Thomas Jefferson High School.)
And smart suburban districts already provide some intra-district choice. Arlington, Virginia (where Arne Duncan is a parent) offers everything from a very traditional academy to a science focus school to a language immersion program. Often, these choice programs are offered in schools that enroll more low-income or language-minority students, to be sure, but parents who want these opportunities have them available.
He does offer some amusing observations about a fairly narrow range of suburban parents: Tiger Mothers; Koala Dads, parents who don’t really care if their children learn to read “until their permanent teeth come in” as long as they’re happy; and Madres Tigres, the cosmopolitan parents who would enroll their children in a language immersion baby swim class if they could.
He gives demographic changes only a glancing mention. But my ten years at the school board table helped me realize that suburban parents are hardly monolithic. Fairfax County, where my daughter graduated, is now a majority minority school district. So is Montgomery County, Maryland, where Mike’s kids are enrolled. And these diverse parents often have legitimate concerns about whether the school district is meeting their child’s needs. For example, at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, I rather suspect that African American parents are more than a little concerned that just 42.1 percent of black freshmen complete algebra with a grade of C or better. When they visit the school board, it will be to insist their kids achievement come up to the county average.
There’s room for charter schools in the suburbs, including Fairfax County. But affluent parents are never going to be the drivers of this innovation. They don’t need to. For them, choice is already a reality.