Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Choice is Good, Both in Dining and in Education

The college I attended required all entering freshman to live on-campus with the exception of commuter students residing with their families. The school further required all students living in the dorms to purchase a meal plan. The only students allowed to opt-out of the meal plan were those with special dietary restrictions such those with documented severe food allergies or those Jewish students who enrolled in the kosher dining plan at the campus Hillel center. The plans required by the school were for a given number of all-you-can-eat meals per week at an assigned dining hall. Students had 3 choices for the number of meals per week, but the minimum at the time I was a student was 14.

I was not very happy with my college dining experience. But I really had no choice unless I wanted to move off-campus as an upperclassman, which was something I could not afford given my budget and the sky-high rents in the area (this was Silicon Valley during the height of the dot-com boom).

It struck me the other day that many of the issues I had with the way my alma mater ran its dining halls are analogous to many of the issues I have with the way the government runs its K-12 schools:
  • Just as I was assigned to a dining hall offering mediocre food based on where I lived, my children are assigned to a school offering mediocre education based on where we live.
  • Just as I was not permitted to switch to another of the university's dining halls with better food, my children are not permitted to transfer to a better one of the schools in the district.
  • Just as I had to pay the exact same amount of money for a low-quality dining hall as another student assigned to a higher-quality one, the amount of tax money we now pay towards education would be the same regardless of which particular school our children attend (since the district is one that relies on per-pupil state funding rather than on local property taxes).
  • Just as I was not permitted to purchase an a la carte dining plan where I would only have to pay for the food I actually consumed, we are not permitted to enroll our children in the school on an a la carte basis where they would only attend the course(s) of our choice.
  • Just as I was frustrated by all the waste I saw going on at my dining hall, I am frustrated by all the waste I see going on in my school district.
  • Just as my college dictated when and with whom I was supposed to eat regardless of my own personal preferences, the local school dictates when and with whom my children are supposed to learn regardless of our family's personal preferences.
  • Just as I could not afford a private apartment off-campus, we cannot afford to send our children to private schools.
  • Finally, just as my alma mater touted the alleged "community building" of dorm-based dining halls as the reason for denying students free choice in dining, the government touts the alleged "democracy promotion" of its schools as the reason for denying parents free choice in education (such as vouchers for private schools). Yet there's no reason to think that forcing a diverse bunch of kids with nothing much in common except for geographic proximity to socialize is the best way to build lasting friendships. The people I'm still close to 13 years after graduating from high school and 9 1/2 years after graduating from college are those with whom I had shared interests. It's the same way now as an adult- while most of our neighbors seem pleasant, we aren't particularly close friends with them. We do most of our socializing outside the neighborhood, with folks from our church, one of the homeschool support groups to which we belong, my sorority's alumnae club, those in DH's professional network, friends from college and DH's grad school, etc.
What it all boils down to is the issue of choice- I want the freedom to choose the option that best meets my own individual needs and preferences. I resent when some bureaucratic entity tries to dictate what I have to do, particularly if it creates an unfair "have" vs. "have not" situation and then charges me way too much of my family's hard-earned money to pay for this broken system.

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