Choose and Lose

How I got my kid into a decent public school and learned that "choice" is not all it's made out to be

A couple of weeks ago my oldest boy and I loaded a brand-new backpack with classroom supplies the state is too cheap to pay for, walked to the corner, and waited for a yellow bus to whisk him off to his first day of kindergarten. When I asked whether he was scared to take the bus by himself, he gave me the kind of guileless, parent-mollifying look only a five-year-old can muster. "No, Mom," he said, "that's your worry."

He's right. In the whole panoply of parental fears, though, I face one my mother never had to worry about: whether she was packing the kids off to the right school. She had virtually no say in the matter. When I went to kindergarten, it was on foot, and the school she now admits tailing me to was the neighborhood elementary school.

When it was time to pick my son's school, my husband and I spent a fretful season awash in research and swept up in the sort of whirlwind courtship once reserved for families trying to pick a private prep school. In Minneapolis, where we live, families choose from a menu of public schools with specialties in the environment, in Spanish, in fine arts; Montessori schools, open schools, and old-fashioned neighborhood schools. Choice is the lynchpin holding together the district's efforts to keep families like mine in the fold--middle-class household with the means to pick up and move to a suburb with schools that are ostensibly better.

The process starts in the fall, with an information fair where parents walk from booth to booth hearing about their options. That's followed by tours of the various schools, open houses, coffee and cookie nights, and a blizzard of government-mandated statistics on who's in each school building--kids and teachers--and how well they perform. In January, you rank your choices on a postcard, send it in, and hunker down until the placement letters arrive in late March or early April. For me and for most of the other families I know with kindergarteners-to-be, those were a long three months.

It wasn't that we faced an all-or-nothing outcome--a bright future at hard-to-get-into School A, or Dickensian warehouse School B. We looked at a bunch of schools and, because we live in an opportune spot on the district's attendance map, they were pretty great, staffed by energetic teachers and populated by happy, engaged students. We picked one, we got in, we went shopping for a backpack. Did we make the right call? Ask me in a year, or six.

By the end, I came to wonder whether Minneapolis's version of public school choice is all it's cracked up to be. For the people who really need alternatives, choice doesn't seem very meaningful. Families who live in low-income neighborhoods where schools are struggling are the ones who are least likely to work the system, and whose kids are most likely to end up in struggling schools. In addition, there is solid and abundant evidence that unrestricted choice, here and throughout the country, has helped to reverse the tenuous gains of decades' work to integrate public schools.

For the rest of us--who have the means to leave work, get in our cars, and go to open houses and school tours-- "choice" may actually foster more anxiety than it resolves. And I wonder whether it really helps anyone distinguish the schools that excel from the ones that don't. The competition and salesmanship fostered by choice make marketing integral to a school's mission, a shift that has transformed the playing field so fundamentally that even great schools suddenly find themselves in danger of being judged harshly, and for all the wrong reasons.


Travel back the better part of a year to November, the start of what Tim Cadotte, principal of Burroughs Community School, refers to as "touring season." We've already been to the district information fair, where we had our arms squeezed by a bevy of exuberant PTA volunteers. We have gathered literature from a dozen schools that serve our southwestern quadrant of the city. Now we're part of a pack of parents trailing Cadotte through the halls of Burroughs, which is so new some of the trim still bears painters' tape.

Located at the corner of 50th Street and Minnehaha Parkway, the building is gorgeous--all russet brick and blond wood and enormous windows looking out onto Minnehaha Creek. We visit gleaming computer labs, a sun-drenched lunchroom, and the library, appointed with vast amounts of glass and wood, and again, an incomparable view of the creek. There are 500 kids within these walls, but it's calm and quiet even when columns of pupils move from one activity to another.

As we walk, Cadotte points out architectural fillips saved from Burroughs's old building, and fields questions from parents who are, if anything, over-prepared. They want to know about instructional methods, and they're not shy about pushing the principal. At one point an arcane discussion about the future of cursive handwriting starts up. Burroughs students score off the charts on standardized tests--as everyone on the tour already seems to know. Everyone wants to know about gifted and talented services. These are so universally in demand they're spread throughout the classrooms, Cadotte explains.

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