The False Dilemma of School Choice

Parents, students, and teachers face a false dilemma when it comes to school choice in America.  There really isn’t any school choice because all schools are structured by the same organizational architecture – a centralized hierarchy.  What does this mean?  It means that whether you go to a public school, private school, alternative school, or whether it’s funded with public money or private money, the schools by and large are organized the same way.

First, it’s hierarchical.  At the bottom, as always, are the students.  On top of them are the various teachers, administrators, public officials, and policy makers involved in the education system.  This is such a common organizational structure that hardly anyone notices it.  Second, it’s centralized.  All material decisions regarding standards and testing are made at a central point located increasingly further and further away from the individual student.

Recent calls to organize against what opponents are calling the “anti-public school agenda” of the Trump Administration are not concerned that charter schools or vouchers would change the organizational architecture of the education system.  In fact, any school that deviates from the orthodoxy of a centralized hierarchy would not qualify for a charter or vouchers in the first place.

Opponents to charter schools and vouchers are primarily concerned with the diversion of public money to private concerns.  Undoubtedly this major change in public policy deserves a proper debate.  However, we submit it merely alters the funding and control mechanism but does nothing to alter the organizational architecture.  In fact, it’s likely that increasing the influence of private interests will only accelerate the trend towards more hierarchy and more centralization.

Due to economies of scale it is widely understood that increased profits and efficiency can only be achieved by more standardization and more centralization within a system.  A system based on profit must continually generate more profit or else perish.  Is learning something we should attempt to commodify and efficiently deliver from centralized points far removed from the individual lives it shapes?

We are not discussing widgets.  We are engaged in an completely abstract debate about the control and direction of the individual lives of very real young people.  And we’re doing so without their input.  Is this right?

Students should have school choice because choice implies freedom and freedom implies responsibility and together they imply human dignity.  But real school choice would imply the existence of schools that are fundamentally different.  As it stands there is no fundamental difference between most schools in America.

Sudbury, however, is a fundamentally different school.  At the core of its difference is its organizational architecture.  Rather than a centralized hierarchy, Sudbury is a peer-to-peer school.  Every “node” (student and staff) in the school network is an equal.  Students and staff are free to interact with each other directly rather than having to pass through a centralized hierarchy.  For those with knowledge of computer networks, Sudbury is a distributed school system.

This organizational architecture creates an ideal learning environment flexible enough to adapt to endless possibilities.  It mimics the natural world.  Learning and development are organic and do not take place in a straight line with a perfectly ordered progression of steps as is contemplated by our centralized hierarchical school structure.  Research continually shows us that learning and development is an unpredictable and disordered process but out of this chaos comes order.

Order in the form of human meaning and understanding.  But this type of order does not lend itself to efficiency.  It resists standardization.  One need only look at the achingly beautiful structures that form in our natural world without conscious human intervention.  Mountains, forests, rivers, reefs, and clouds all stand as a testament to the beautiful forms that emerge naturally from our living world.  We should trust that young people free to learn inside an open-ended organizational structure such as Sudbury would give birth to such beauty as well.

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