A Modest Proposal for Family Choice


In a recent column about the No Child Left Behind Act, conservative commentator George Will expressed some cynicism regarding the potential effectiveness of the new law. He conceded that the act’s most important provisions “are prerequisites for meaningful school choice” because they would allow parents to become “comparison shoppers” and hold schools accountable. Indeed vouchers would finally rule.

Will surprised me, however, when he contended that “the crucial predictor of a school’s performance is the quality of the children’s families.” If family composition, as he opines, is the most significant factor affecting student learning, why are we fussing over the need for more testing, the lack of school and classroom accountability, the accusation of shoddy teaching and the need to overhaul our purportedly failing public schools? Shouldn’t we be working on the families instead of schools?

In the early 18th century, satirist Jonathan Swift wrote a short piece titled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country; and for Making Them Beneficial to Their Publick. Swift suggested that the poverty in Ireland could be eradicated if the poor would have their children, kill them and sell them for food. His proposal included recipes for food preparation. (Would fried children taste like, let me think, chicken?)

A Swift Notion
Consider this analogy: School choice is to improving the quality of education as “A Modest Proposal” was to improving the economic and social well-being in Ireland in the early 1700s. The catch is that Swift was only kidding about killing offspring and selling them for food. School voucher proponents are serious about their off-based plan.

If student achievement is determined primarily by the family from which the child comes, we shouldn’t be discussing school choice per se, but rather the merits of family choice. My modest proposal is that all kids, even those unborn, should be entitled to choose their families.

Suppose a child, call him Travis, is given a choice at childbirth. One option is that Travis is to be raised in a one-parent household where the parent, probably the mother, has to work two low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Travis lives in a small rundown apartment on the poor side of the tracks. His primary guardian is the television set. The parent spends little or no time reading to Travis simply because she is too busy earning a living. To be sure, there is love in the family, but the economic reality of providing for Travis and his siblings overwhelms every other need.

Here’s the other option. Travis can be born into a two-parent household where both parents have college degrees and professional jobs. The family lives in a leafy suburb in a four-bedroom house with a triple-car garage. The strong-willed child listens to Mozart while still in the womb although he would rather hear the Backstreet Boys. The parents have adequate time to supervise Travis, and they dutifully read fairy tales to him before he can talk.

Travis gets three square meals a day. Anyway, his school doesn’t offer free or reduced price breakfast and lunch. When Travis is older, the parents knock themselves out transporting him from piano lessons to parent-teacher conferences to soccer practices.

Given the two options, which family would the newborn Travis choose?

A Better Choice
Most of us in educational leadership acknowledge that schools must improve. We see the need for school accountability. We know poor schools can be excellent schools, dependent partly on the internal culture of the schools themselves. We see ourselves as truly involved in a ministry of helping students, one by one.

We know well that the classroom may represent the most caring and nurturing environment for too many children. We also realize that too many children who present behavioral and academic challenges in school do so because of families with limited social and economic choices.

We must do all we can to leave no child behind, but the truth is our schools cannot do it alone. To see vouchers and school choice as an option or even a panacea for leaving no child behind is a concept that simply should not be considered. At least, not until children can choose their families, too.

Randall Zitterkopf is superintendent of the Huron Public Schools, P.O. Box 949, Huron, SD 57350. E-mail: R.A.Zitterkopf@k12.sd.us