Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Parental Choice Fallacy in Education Reform Debates

Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Parental Choice Fallacy in Education Reform Debates

Article excerpt


Some tout parental school choice as a strategy for promoting, among other school-related goods, educational innovation. (1) This Article offers clarifying and skeptical thoughts about that position. It first explains what "educational innovation" and "parental choice" mean. It then considers what limitations on this strategy might arise from existing legal regulations, from market forces, or from ethical obligations to children. Finally, the Article explains why parental choice is also unlikely to improve education for the children most in need of a better academic environment and suggests an alternative approach to student reassignment that is much more likely to do so.

I focus on educational innovation because this Article appears in a symposium entitled "Educational Innovation and the Law." I suspect the organizers of the symposium did not really have educational innovation in mind, but rather one of the other concepts discussed below--in particular, improvement of educational quality. Nevertheless, it is interesting to talk about educational innovation and its connection or lack thereof with parental choice. I do not have a position on whether innovation is needed. Presumably one would take the position that it is needed after concluding that existing pedagogies are inadequate. Like most other participants in the school reform debate, I know very little about primary or secondary school curriculum and instructional techniques, so I would not presume to make such a judgment. My own ignorance is part of the reason I am skeptical about relying on parental choice to promote educational innovation, or even to improve schools' delivery of existing curricula and pedagogies. Being a parent has not transformed me into the omniscient being that defenders of parental entitlement sometimes seem to suppose all parents are. Rather than argue that innovation is needed, then, I simply accept that some people think it is and address what obstacles might exist to using expanded parental choice as a means to achieving this aim.

Part I clarifies what I understand educational innovation to be and distinguishes that from other concepts at play in the school choice debate. Part II considers various limitations on innovation in curriculum and instruction and gives reasons for skepticism about reliance on parental choice as a means to any aim other than gratifying parents. Part III offers an alternative, more child-centered approach to student reassignment.


"Educational" means relating to instruction of students, providing knowledge and information, and fostering skills through a learning process. (2) "Innovation" is the act or process of inventing or introducing some new thing or way of performing a task. (3) Thus, "educational innovation" means creating a new pedagogy, a new way of instructing and training students. This is distinct from several similar concepts.

First, educational innovation is distinct from educational quality, which means success at achieving educational aims, aims that could be as old as the hills and that might be achieved by long-established pedagogical methods. Presumably those who advocate parental choice as a strategy for promoting educational innovation hope that this will improve educational quality, but the two things are distinct. Innovation can actually lower quality, as arguably occurred when schools switched to factory-prepared meals for school cafeterias. (4) Conversely, one might improve educational quality without innovating, simply by making teachers work harder at applying their current approach. One might also improve quality by having teachers switch to a different, but already established, approach. Thus, innovation is also different from change; innovation is a change to something new.

Because "educational" refers to what teachers do in the classroom, "educational innovation" is also not equivalent to innovation in school financing or administration. …

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