When School Choice Isn’t Really a Choice

When school choice isn’t really a choice…A version of this piece originally appeared at VTDigger.org on 07/02/18

Much has been written about public schools vs. private schools (and vouchers, choices, etc.) in Vermont lately, but nothing I’ve read has gotten to the true heart of the conversation:

School choice isn’t really school choice because not everyone can access that choice.

school choice

I’d like to tell you about Alex, who was a student of mine at Champlain Valley Union High School a few years ago.

Alex’s parents came to Vermont from another country, and Alex spent the first few years of his life speaking a language other than English in his home. Throughout elementary school, Alex worked with an English Language teacher and a Speech-Language Pathologist. By the time Alex reached high school, he was a fluent English speaker, but he still had reading and writing deficits. Alex then worked with a Reading Specialist, and he was placed in Humanities classes that contained embedded Special Educators and paraprofessionals. He worked hard, and by the end of 10th grade his skills were improving, and he was coming to school with added confidence.

Alex’s family didn’t have much money, so when he turned 16, Alex got a job restocking shelves at a big box store, and he worked after school and on weekends to earn money for his family, sometimes nearing 40 hours/week. Alex’s school work suffered during this time as the daily grind took hold of his life. He’d often beg his older sister to drive him to friends houses for a little respite, as most of his friends didn’t live on a public bus line, just like most Vermonters don’t. It was the bus to school, a full day of classes, the bus home, a walk to work, a walk home in the dark, sleep, repeat.

Upon the recommendation of his School Counselor and me, Alex freed up time in his schedule to do extra work with math, science, English, and art teachers (as well as tutors in our Learning Center), and he took advantage of his connection with me to learn how to better access the library. He put in the work necessary to finish his assignments and, yet again, improve his skills. He reached the end of that particular plateau, and, for the first time in his life, he could see the end of high school as a realistic possibility.

At CVU, we have a community-based capstone project called Graduation Challenge that all seniors must complete. Alex wanted to work with a forestry mapping service, but his work schedule was still intense, and he didn’t have transportation to complete the required hours with his mentor in the field. So, many of us pitched in with rides when we could. It took Alex much longer to complete his project than it takes most students, and there were a few bumps along the way, but he passed the experience with solid performances on the final two components: a research paper, and a presentation of learning in front of a panel of faculty and community experts.

Alex graduated from high school.

It was hard work all around, but it was our work. It is our work.

Alex got a chance at a better life, and it was partly because of us — his educators.

The ELL teacher and the SLP, the embedded Special Educators and Paras, the Reading Specialist, the tutors and librarians, all of us who drove him to his field work, and a conscientious and gracious group of teachers who helped him in many ways that I know of and countless ways that I don’t.

We serve ALL students.

Because many students, like Alex, don’t have the luxury of choices because of their lack of privilege.

Could Alex have commuted to another school? No. Could he have participated in afterschool activities? No. Could he have accessed almost anything “available” to him? No.

Alex was lucky to live in a district with great local schools. If he had been raised in a rural, choice district, he would have only been able to attend the school who decided to send a bus to his town, if not directly to his house.

I hear stories about students using their state vouchers to attend prestigious private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that’s great for them, but please remember that for every perceived success of “choice” there’s an Alex 

povertysitting at home because there are no choices. There is no access. The easiest option, the closest option, the least-expensive-to-the-family option: that is the only option.

Please don’t forget about Alex and students like him.

Please don’t let school choice become one more place where our society makes it clear that we care a great deal about the haves and not at all about the have nots.


Further Reading:

Slow Motion: Traveling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia” by Lorna Jimmerson for the Rural School and Community Trust

Private School and School Choice” resources from Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society

Three Big Problems with School ‘Choice’ That Supporters Don’t Like to Talk About” by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post



Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Pride by Ibi Zoboi.


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