Roundtable: The Struggle Around School Choice

In 1834, Congress passed a bill for a public education system funded by state taxes. They believed that children would be able to better themselves through education and wanted each child to have a free and appropriate education. The constitution states that each child is entitled to equal educational opportunity regardless of their race, ethnic background, religion, or gender, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or noncitizen. But the intentions of our forefathers may have missed the mark regarding equity in a one-public-school-for-all system. Private and charter schools have popped up everywhere, which gives families the freedom of school choice. But is school choice the answer to the nation’s educational needs? To explore that answer, we turned to Mark Anderson, principal of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA; Kevin Grawer, principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in Maplewood, MO; and Ed Johnson, principal of Brentwood High School in St. Louis, MO. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

Savicky: Do you think that school choice has made an impact on your student population? How many students have you lost to charter schools, private schools, and the like?

Anderson: I need to contextualize my work experience in order to answer this question. I am a school of choice. I just finished my ninth year as principal at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School (MFSS). We are a school of choice in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD). Students have to apply via a lottery to come here. California has very liberal school choice laws. So, it is something that I deal with every day. When you ask, “Has it made an impact?” the answer is yes. PUSD has about 15,000 students in our district, and within our district boundaries there are 63 private or charter schools competing against them. Almost half of the school-age children in Pasadena attend a private or a charter school, and then the other half attend PUSD.

There is a law in California that if over 50 percent of parents at a school sign a petition, they can fire the principal. When I became principal, there were two other schools who were under attack by a philanthropist—he was funding community activists to be at the schools, stand outside, and get people to sign the petition. They did a lot of subversive tactics like asking, “Are you happy with your school? Are the bathrooms clean? Don’t you wish that the principal did this? Sign here and we’ll help you make changes.” They would get a lot of people to sign in an effort to trigger this law. Then the charter school could come in and take over.

So, it’s not like there is a complete sense of school choice. There are active subversive tactics to destroy other schools at play in the Pasadena community. Within the past two years, California has tightened up our charter school laws, so it’s not so easy to employ those tactics anymore. But I have to make students want to make the choice to go to my school, to choose to want to stay here, and provide the best education for them. It’s something that I deal with in every facet of my job.

Grawer: My story is different. I’ve been to MFSS, and it’s an incredible place. Anderson does an awesome job selling it because they have something great to offer. For us, we’re a traditional public school, whereas, if you live in this tight neighborhood of—it’s only a 3-square-mile area—then we’re your choice. There is not one private high school within our neighborhood, but there are a lot close by that kids can choose to go to, so we do compete against them. We lose about 5–10 percent on our eighth-grade to ninth-grade transition each year. Where those students go varies—some attend private Catholic schools, charter schools, or home school.

It’s not exactly written in my job description to be a school promoter, but it’s something all principals have to do. We’re constantly attempting to put our best foot forward in the community and show them what we’re about, why public school is a viable option. When I became principal here 11 years ago, I thought, “I want everybody in this neighborhood to know this is a great option and it’s free, and your tax dollars go to support it. So give us a shot.” That was our sales pitch from the beginning: Give us a shot. Let us work with your children. We think we can earn your trust. And we think we have. In 2008, we were losing about 30–40 percent of our students to various schools. Now we’re keeping 90 percent of them.

Johnson: We’re about the same size as Grawer’s school, and we both serve a community. We don’t compete against any other public schools. Our community members, for the most part, are very pleased with what they’re able to get from our school district, because we’re a walking community, and it’s like Mayberry. There [are] about 5 percent of our students who get away from us, and it is right at the eighth- to ninth-grade transition. But our senior classes are between 54–60 kids every year, so when you say 5 percent in Brentwood, we’re talking about two, three, maybe four kids at best every year. It’s a relatively small number of kids who make the decision to go to private schools, and there are a number of them to choose from. If a family does choose to leave, I try to get an exit conversation. In most cases, it’s because they’re legacy, and their families have attended another school for years, so it’s really nothing against our school district.

Savicky: Why do you think students are leaving traditional public schools and choosing an alternative education?

Grawer: We have a lot of legacy kids here whose parents went to a certain private school, and that tradition means a lot in the St. Louis metro area. Sometimes it’s a religious decision. But I think some families just feel like the private sector offers their students more opportunities, and more networking opportunities. There is also an image—which I believe is a false image—that private schools are a safer, more protected learning environment. I’ve taught in the public and private sector. I left an upper-class, wealthy private school and moved to a working-class public school with those stereotypes in mind.

They were all incorrect. I thought the public school was much more efficiently run, and I felt completely safe. The kids were free to be who they were, and I felt like the demographics mimicked society much better than the private school did. I thought that was much more important in a child’s education and rearing, and so I’ve chosen to send my kids to that type of environment as well. But we are a very individualistic society, and it’s hard to get group thinking here in the United States; we just weren’t created for that. People have the right to move and go to the school they want to, and I respect that. My job is to give them every possible reason to choose our school over somewhere else.

Johnson: When looking at the public schools that students choose, there’s a lot of work going on with them really early in their high school experience trying to declare a postsecondary option or career for themselves. With that work, we’re finding that when students take a self-inventory, not all choose not to go the traditional route. In schools, now more than ever, we’re seeing a significant percentage of our kids choosing to go the tech school route because they want to be in a certification program so that when they leave the high school experience, they’ll have options. They can still go the traditional four-year college way, or they can go into an apprenticeship program with a certification under their belt. We’re starting to see where certain kids are feeling more comfortable about not necessarily going the traditional route, and some kids are seeing where there’s value in tech schools and apprenticeship programs.

Anderson: The school choice movement is founded in racism and classism. The way school choice came up was people wanted to avoid forced integration into schools. They liked the school segregated; now they’re being forced into it, so the covert way around it was, “If we create school choice, now we can ‘choice’ ourselves out of integration and make [schools for ourselves] around people that we just want to be around.” Advocates will say the opposite; they will say that choice empowers the poor, the underprivileged, but that is the exact opposite of what occurs. When you have school choice, those with privilege will all choose themselves into a school or program together, and it leaves those who lack the capital to navigate the systems and the processes of school choice all stuck in a struggling school or a struggling environment.

Grawer talked about safety. When I hear people ask me about safety, it’s always very coded about race. What they really mean to ask is, “Are there white children at your school?” My school is founded in diversity. If you are coming here, it is integrated; it is a diverse school. This is what you stand for. A friend who worked here said, “You know, you don’t get asked very much about safety because you have a lot of white kids at your school.” When she became a principal at an all-Black school, she said, “They [potential families] look at my kids and everyone asks about safety.” That’s the big difference.

The school choice movement is really just this underlying racism, and even people who I know that will spout anti-racism rhetoric and spout diversity and equity, their actions with their own children are different. They state, “I’m going to send them where I think it gives them the best opportunity.” In my mind school choice is just a way for us to resegregate our school system. People do this because they believe if they can build their child’s social capital or social network, then they will do it, as opposed to being forced into an integrated school or a school that has families with different values.

Savicky: What are you doing within your school to make it more marketable to students? What steps have you taken to make your school more attractive than the alternative schools?

Johnson: We have taken the time to build a program that has guided walks throughout our students’ coursework, so that if a student chooses to pursue a particular career, we’ve got those walks in place to ensure equity. We’ve noticed that the younger siblings to kids who had successful careers at our school tend to have an advantage because they know what teachers to pick and how to take the dual-credit courses, as opposed to some newer kids. If you just give students the course guidebook, they don’t necessarily know how to schedule their classes in an intentional way toward pursuing a particular postsecondary plan or finding out what opportunities we have built within our system.

To market our school means that every year, with each grade level, we talk to our kids about the classes that are made available to them at each grade level, but then to extend that, we talk about how each class in certain cases lends itself toward a particular career or postsecondary option. We market our program and what it is we have to offer, but, more importantly, we educate our students on how they need to go about putting these scheduled walks from one course to the next in an effort to set themselves up for some sort of a postsecondary option.

Anderson: A school must create a clear vision of who they are and who they are not, and everybody—every staff member, student, and parent at your school—needs to be able to repeat that vision because they’re your biggest marketers. When I came in, we came up with a very clear vision. Everybody knows it. This past year, there was a very misguided effort by some community members to close my school, but the students stood up and they repeated our vision to them and said, “This is what we stand for. This is who we are. You cannot close the school.” That was something. When you do your marketing, you have to think of official and unofficial channels. The clear message must also go through your unofficial channels. People talk, so when people talk about their school and they ask, “What do you like about the school?” many kids will say, “I don’t know.” But all my kids can give you an answer: “This is what my school stands for. This is who we are.”

When I became principal, there was no official logo at my school. Our mascot is the Eagles, but each sports team or club had their own version of the eagle logo, so there was no cohesiveness, so I designed a logo. I gave out stickers to everybody, plastered them on every car, got them into local restaurants. Now, if you make a shirt for your club, you have to have the approved logo on it. All the sports teams have to use the same logo. We created a mural with the logo on it on campus. Now we have a visual identity. Then we started sending newsletters. Most schools had switched to electronic newsletters, but we switched back to a high-glossy print, multipage newsletter that we send out twice a year. Our students write articles that highlight the diversity in our school. Families can use that newsletter when people ask them about their school choice. They now have something to show. I also send out a postcard twice a month to the ZIP code around my school.

Because I’m a school of choice, not all homes in the neighborhood have a child at my school, but when we need funds through taxes or when people are complaining about traffic because of back-to-school night, I want them to know how great the school is in their neighborhood. If you don’t have kids in the system, you’re still supporting the school because you know this school makes the neighborhood a better place. The postcard also opens up communication with the surrounding community. I invite families onto campus for sporting events, art presentations, a concert, or a school tour. When those families ask me what makes my school better than everybody else’s, we build ourselves up, but never put down another school. I say, “Well, you want to find that match,” and I stress our ability to match for each person. Grawer always says, “One size fits each,” and I’ve stolen that from him. You want to join a school that’s going to be a good match.

You also have to have friendly customer service on campus and good curb appeal. I have really worked hard to make sure that we do. When we have phone calls or when people walk in, they’re treated really well, because people make a judgment from that first impression. If people drive by, they’re making an assessment of your school, and you want it to be an inviting place.

The last marketing tactic is me as a person. I enjoy public speaking, so I’m out in the community a lot. I’m good friends with the mayor. I joined the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association—which puts on the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl—to get students of charter schools involved. Because I’m so involved in the community, I get a lot of phone calls from organizations requesting student help. As people contact me, I create access and opportunities for my students to be first in line to get these opportunities. Then, as people work with the charter school students, their perception changes. They say, “Oh, these are wonderful kids. They’re even more responsible.” They’re well-rounded. They have a better view and sense of the world. They have a better sense of equity than other students.

I did hire a person specifically for marketing at my school. Instead of hiring an extra teacher, I hired someone to do marketing. She was a parent at my school; her kids have since graduated, but she’s always out in the community. She’s made connections with the local newspapers, so they have me write local articles about what is happening. Our school is known in the area for a high-​performing AP program, for a really diverse population, for a strong music program. People say, “OK. I know that’s what we’re going to get. That’s the school we’re going to choose.”

Grawer: I know Anderson and Johnson very well, and they both have incredible schools and graduates. Your graduates sometimes can be your best marketers. Many years ago, our graduates came back to me and complained how ill-​prepared they were for college. I was shocked. If we were going to ask our graduates to be a marketing tool, we needed to make sure they felt confident that when they go to college or into the tech world or the armed services, that they are prepared. Most come back to the community at some point, and word spreads like wildfire. It’s been a labor of love and a battle to make sure that we are doing our part to ensure that not only our students, but our students who leave us, leave the best impression. I want them to love and feel a real sense of connection with their alma mater; that’s a big deal to me. Kids don’t go back to visit their elementary school or middle school. No, they come back to their high school. They want to take pride in it and want to see it do well.

Savicky: Do you think the future will involve more school choice nationwide?

Anderson: Yes. I think it will involve more school choice because it is something that both political parties support immensely … so I think it is something that will move forward. You see a lot of schools trying to differentiate—in my district we call them “signature programs.” We’re going to do a dual-language program at this school, or this school is going to be IB. As opposed to just a more well-rounded school, you see a lot of them creating a focus to try to attract people. What worries me is the more school choice families have, the more the schools look at the student as a commodity. If I get the student, then I get this amount of money from the state, and that’s not a healthy way to view students. You don’t want to lose that vision that we’re in the dynamic work of changing lives.

As school choice spreads, we need to monitor it in such a way that it is not under the same racist ideals from which it began. It is not about commodities and generating money for my school. It is a way of reaching all students in our society, equitable outcomes for everyone, and really providing the best for each student and remembering that we’re educators. We are not businesspeople, and school should not be run like businesses.

Grawer: I do think there will be more school choice, but personally I’m not a proponent. But, as Mark said, those people who are pro-school choice tend to have some authority and power in our society. They tend to be the people who have the means. And unfortunately, the decision makers and our government seem to be the folks who have the final say. It’s up to the people in this country to take back some of that ownership. We can do that by who we elect and how we go about our political process. It does play a role in school choice.

For example, in the St. Louis area, the charter school experiment has not been very successful, but I know out in California, Anderson has such competition. But that could easily change here. All it takes is a couple donors and the right people to get involved. In this community in the St. Louis area, there are huge traditional private schools. What we’ve tried to do in many ways is actually take up some of their successful traits in terms of how we market. I have a signature program here called “School as Apprenticeship” where we try to expose every student that comes here to their field of interest. We want to show them what it is like to work as an adult. We give them the background information, what it costs to be a veterinarian if they want to be a veterinarian, and what schools they should go to. We put them in touch with people in their chosen profession while they are at my school. Again, we had to do that. We were losing population, and we needed to draw people in. We had to have that turnaround, and we focused on a signature program, which is a challenging program. It’s costly, it’s timely, and there’s no model how to do it. So, we’re constantly tweaking it and figuring out how to work it.

Johnson: I wasn’t ready for Anderson to open up on the political agenda that’s attached to school choice, but he did a wonderful job. So, thank you for getting that conversation warmed up for us! To me, school choice is just another way for the rich to get richer and for certain kids to have all of the resources while others don’t. It will be very difficult to leverage activities and curriculum for students once people with money give it to the private schools. I really think that’s what’s going to happen. Private schools will get more money to create situations that are more segregated, so much so that if you’ve got a high-achieving school and it’s predominantly white, it’s going to be very difficult for a Black family to make the choice to go to that school just because it’s a good school.

I just wonder to what degree it’s going to segregate things. If by chance school choice does develop in Missouri, I think it’s going to be very difficult to undo, and it’s unfortunate because we work so hard to try to create diverse school systems for students. It’s just unfortunate because the choice is not going to be geared toward a particular focus that the school has; it’s all going to be about really dividing out [white and Black students], and once that happens, we’re going to find ourselves all the way back before Brown vs. the Board of Education. It’s unfortunate that they’re literally trying to keep a plan for how they’re going to stay with this systemic structure that they put in place just to, as I said, make the rich get richer, and oppress those who are oppressed.