If Not SPF, Then What?

Based on remarks made by Andrew Lefkowits at
Community Discussion on School Choice
January 15, 2019
Central Park Recreation Center

There are four things to think about, other than SPF, when choosing a

1. Calm Down! There is no one perfect school. The choice systems gives
the impression that there is a “perfect fit” for your child and if you find
that fit your child will succeed. The truth is, the vast majority of kids
will get the educational tools they need to thrive in any school. The
choice you’re making today is not going to mean the difference
between your child winning the Nobel Prize and living in your
basement when she’s 50. The stakes are lower than you think.

2. Schools Change Over Time. If your child is entering school in 2019
as a 3-, 4- or 5-year old, you’re looking at spending 6-10 years in this
school. Very few schools offer the same experience today compared to
6 – 10 years ago. One reason is the autonomy of the principal. I can
tell you from personal experience that change in leadership can
radically change the experience for kids in a building. And, in DPS, the
average tenure of a principal is 3-5 years and the turnover rate is
about 20% per year. So, what you’re signing up for today could be
very different from what you’ll get a few years down the road.

But, there are some things you can look for today that will make a
difference to your experience over the course of your child’s
enrollment. The most important, in my opinon, is parental partnership.
Try to find out how parents are included and empowered in the school.

How does leadership involve parents in decision-making? Do parents
feel that the school answers to them?
The most useful venue for this type of empowerment is often the
Collaborative School Committee or CSC. The CSC is mandated by state
law and should be comprised of school leaders, faculty and staff,
parents and community members. Parents are supposed to outnumber
the other groups and should reflect the diversity of the school. The
CSC is like a board of directors and advises the principal on big policy
issues like programming, curriculum, and budgeting. Although it is
mandated, I’ve found that the effectiveness of CSC’s vary across
schools. Some leaders view it as essential to creating a school that
serves all kids well. Others view it as yet another box to check off,
getting in the way of the “important stuff.”
This difference is important. Ultimately, we know that ALL parents
want the best for their kids, and so the way to make sure that the
school you choose is providing the type of experience that you want
for your kid now AND in a decade is to have meaningful systems of
power that flow up from the school community and that hold the
school accountable. Parents should feel a sense of ownership of the
school and be in a position to make sure that the school serves the
needs of all kids.
If a school community is empowered to partner with a school, when
the inevitable changes come, rather than being along for the ride and
hoping for the best, parents will be driving.

3. Values. What do you want your child to get from their educational
experience? Is your biggest hope for school that your child gets good
at standardized tests? Most of us would probably say no. But we often
judge a school by its test scores even though a child’s experience at
school is so much more than testing.
What sorts of things do you want your child to learn from being in
school? Personally, when I look back on my educational experience,
being exposed to people who are different from me was huge, and is
one of the things that I valued most in choosing a school for my daughters. Sharing space and navigating challenges with people from
different backgrounds- racial, socio-economic, native language, life
experience – and finding your shared humanity are skills that I think
are in terribly short supply in our society today. They are also skills
that are very hard to develop outside of school. So, while you may be
fortunate enough to be able to choose some great summer camps, or
take your kids to the museum, or otherwise supplement some of the
academic pieces of their education, creating spaces where they can
interact as peers with people who are different from them, is very hard
to do outside of schools.
I share this because it is an aspect of the educational experience that I
place a really high value on, but I had to look beyond the easily
accessible information to find a school that excels in creating those
types of experiences.

4. Your Choice Impacts More Than Your Own Child. As I said before,
the choice process encourages you to find the “perfect fit” for your
child. But in a public school district your decision affects more than
just your child alone. You’re probably familiar with the concept of a
carbon footprint. I think we need to assess our privilege footprint when
it comes to school choice. Ask yourself:

  • Are you able to tour one or more schools during work hours?
  • Can you look up information on a smart phone or laptop?
  • When you do, do you find information in your native language?
  • Do you feel relatively confident in where you’ll be living when the
    school year starts?
  • Are you able to consider schools that don’t have free before- and
    after-school care?
  • Are you able to get your student to a school that is further away,
    where the district doesn’t provide transportation?
  • Do you expect to contribute financially to your child’s school or
    help with fundraising?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you have
privilege that many parents lack. People without such privilege don’t
care any less than you do, but they are stuck in a system that caters
to those with privilege. How we talk about schools and the social pressure that we feel to get “what’s best” for our kids, combined with
a system that favors those who already have some advantages, leads
to concentrations of privilege in some schools. If privilege is
concentrated in some schools, then lack-of-privilege is concentrated in

So if you can accept that the stakes are actually lower than you think,
and that that the choice you are making is being made in system that
allows inequities to persist then I hope you will at least consider the
impact of your choice on the system as a whole.