“Hobson’s choice” is one of those wonderful phrases you don’t hear much anymore. The story is told about one Thomas Hobson, who ran a rental stable in England in the 17th century. If you wanted to hire one of his horses, Mr. Hobson, who didn’t want his best mounts overused, offered you a choice: you could take the horse he offered or no horse at all. “Hobson’s choice,” often mistakenly rendered as a “Hobbesian choice,” entered the language as a phrase meaning “no choice at all.” Take it or leave it.
I thought of Hobson’s choice today when reading Nancy Flanagan’s Teacher in a Strange Land blog over at EdWeek. “Choice isn’t the answer to building a vision of a high-quality, personally tailored, democratic education for every child in America,” she writes. “Nor is it evil incarnate. It’s a distraction from the conversation we should be having about improving public education in America.” The early aspirations of the charter movement notwithstanding, choice has failed to live up to its promise, Flanagan notes.
“While charter promoters talk a great game about families flocking to the innovative, high-quality programming at public school academies, what’s more likely is that the charter represents a more palatable option than the public school–perhaps over something as simple as a grumpy teacher, an inconvenient bus schedule, lack of opportunity for parental control.”
I’m not as troubled as Nancy by parental caprice in exercising choice. It would be ironic to be in the business of education and have little faith in parents’ ability to make an informed choice—or to correct course if that choice proved untenable. My personal bottom line, speaking only for myself, is that choice is an intrinsic good. I like exercising school choice for my child and I want you to have the same options. And let’s face it, education is fundamentally coercive: you have to educate your child. Some latitude in how you go about it is to be encouraged.
Flanagan is on stronger ground when she observes that school choice has “not provided a range of options for children in poverty.”
“…and predictable aspects of entrepreneurial school start-ups have intensified: Cutting corners on staff. Relying on private schmoozing and charitable funding rather than community/tax-based support. Focusing on surface features–like uniforms and hall behavior–rather than strong academics. Using public monies for advertising rather than educational quality. Booting kids who don’t burnish the school’s reputation or scores. Inventing bogus politicized agendas like the parent “trigger” for personal and commercial gain.
The points Flanagan raises are debatable but here’s the problem with choice I think she overlooks: Too often, the “choice” is either false or irrelevant. To give the most obvious example, if a nearby charter school is wedded to the same content-poor curriculum as a neighborhood school, if writing is taught as pure process, and reading as a set of strategies to be learned and practiced, if test-prep dominates the school day and the curriculum narrowed for that purpose, then issues of staffing, management structures, union contracts and funding mechanisms don’t matter at all.
I’ve argued this before: education doesn’t have a process problem. It has a product problem. Having to choose between the same thin gruel, lowest common denominator education in Public School A or Charter School B is a choice. Hobson’s choice.