Such a thing as "the wrong kind of school choice"?

Acton Institute senior editor Joe Carter thinks so. In a post on the Acton Institute’s blog, Carter responds to a piece in Christianity Today magazine that highlighted the microtrend of families intentionally moving to underserved communities and purposely enrolling their children in poorly performing schools. Carter writes:

Needless to say, this type of “school choice”—moving in a few white, middle-class Christian children into an impoverished minority public school—will do absolutely nothing to restore “a community struggling against generational poverty.” What it does, however, is reveal one of the perverse ironies of “educational choice.” Those of us in favor of broader educational choices often assume that parents will choose to maximize their child’s educational opportunities. The reality, though, is that if given a wide range of choices, some parents will choose to send their child to a particular school for reasons that have almost nothing to do with education. Some will choose a school based on the sports program or other extra-curricular activities. And some, like the parents mentioned in the CT article, will choose to send their children to a particular school in order to make a socio-theological statement. …

Unfortunately, while the actions they take are important—volunteering, mentoring, choosing to be teachers—they are individualistic stopgap measures for long-term institutional problems.

When these families leave these neighborhoods (as they eventually will) they will leave behind a still-broken school system. While their willingness to move to the struggling communities is noble, what their neighbors need is to be empowered to help their own children. They need the ability to make their own educational choices—and that’s not something that can be accomplished by this “new school choice agenda.”

At the outset of his response to the CT article, Carter voices his reluctance to criticize anyone for such mission-minded, sacrificial personal activism — and I share his reluctance. At the same time, I’m pleased Carter wrote the piece and find it thought-provoking.

Perhaps the pioneers of this new trend never intended it to be a means by which to effect education reform. Perhaps they’re simply trying to live out their particular vocation as Christians.

If the former, then it does constitute some kind of “new school choice agenda” — and needs to be responded to in much the way Carter responds, for it stands the central assumption that underlies the “old school choice agenda” on its head (that, when given the choice, parents will opt to send their children to schools that offer the best possible education) at the same time that it doesn’t solve the problems the old agenda would, in fact, solve.

If the latter, though, then it should be observed and commented upon as that — as an inspiring example of what it means to live out a vocation — and not as a means by which to effect education reform. The presence of the four flourishing families in a poor community won’t in and of itself solve the community’s poor school problem, but that doesn’t mean it won’t yield positive fruit of a different kind.