The ghost of selective admissions

The Denver Post this weekend kept alive the oppositional dualism that far too often permeates the education debate by doing the usual Tastes GreatLess Filling argument on charter schools (see for; and against).

This puzzles me.  I don’t know too many reasonable people who think that all charters should be banned; nor do I know any people who think all district schools should be abolished.  Indeed, in some circles, there is occasionally mild agreement – briefly – that we should be looking at high-quality schools of a variety of types and educational models.

But what interests me more than any charter duel is the lack of any debate about selective admissions (I wrote about this topic in a piece published Monday).  Many critics of charters tend to claim — even though charters admit by open lottery — that they somehow either choose or self-select their students, and that any selective admissions criteria is automatically antithetical to public schools. The claim — in my view often incorrect — most often hurled against charters is that they are somehow “creaming” the best students from traditional schools. But for selective admissions schools and programs, that’s not just the claim, it is the intent.

The oddest thing about this debate is that many districts (Denver among them) have tons of selective admissions programs in their system – magnet schools, gifted and talented programs, International Baccalaureate, and more.

Most of these selective admissions schools have policies for entrance (e.g. requiring test scores, and/or interviews) that, were they in a charter, would pop veins. But this is glossed over.  It’s true that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but this seems not that foolish — if one truly believes that all public schools should have open admissions why are there so many exceptions? Is there an argument someone can make for eliminating charter schools while allowing selective admissions programs?

Personally, I favor some selective schools – I think more options (yes, including charters) improves the public system overall.  I also think the lottery system employed by Colorado’s charters is probably more fair, open and democratic than the geographic proximity by which district schools fill enrollment, which has a lot more to do with where one can afford to buy or rent a home. The latter is neither open nor a lottery – it’s determined largely by zip code and income, which I think is overall far less fair.

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