The influence of recent global trends in education has lent itself to the resignification of traditional national policies (Robertson & Verger, 2012; Verger, Lubienski & Steiner-Khamsi, 2016). The expansion of private school choice has been possible through the lowering of school fees which results from state funding to the private sector (Narodowski & Moschetti, 2015) and the liberalization of the private sector of education. The work of Narodowski, Moschetti and Gottau (2017) identified eight different paradigmatic explanations that account for the interpretations and theoretical constructions around the privatization of education in Argentina in the last twenty-five years. These are: i) Privatization as a result of the general improvement in household incomes; ii) Privatization as a result of teacher strikes in the public sector; iii) Privatization as a result of families increasingly seeking better educational outcomes; iv) Privatization as a consequence of socioeconomic segregation and self-segregation processes; v) Privatization as a result of neoliberal policies; vi) Privatization as a consequence of the publification of private education; vii) Privatization as a quasi-spontaneous phenomenon; and viii) Privatization as a state policy. Based on this work, we intend to compare and contrast the theoretical findings regarding the reasons for the growth of private school choice with empirical evidence and arguments for the parental choice of private secondary schools for their children.
The study used an intentional sample of 30 parents who live in the city of Buenos Aires that in 2017 had to choose secondary school for their children. Parents were selected through the directors of the school, who were also interviewed, and provided the list of parents willing to be interviewed. The sample of parents was taken from primary schools with no secondary provision located in neighborhood 13, the neighborhood with the highest number or private schools and neighborhood 4, which has the highest proportion of state schools.
In this work the term school choice refers to “what families look for in choosing a new school” but also to “a fuller consideration of the processes of choice, including how and when choices are made and who makes them (Gorard, 1999: 25). This work also draws on the theoretical concept of structured paternalism proposed Ben-Porath & Johanek (2019) to analyze school choice but no as the result of the introduction of market mechanisms or the right to choose, but rather, as evidence of how we collectively think about public and private affairs in education.
In this context, the analysis of the interviews shows that school choice is a multi-faceted phenomenon fostered by a variety of educational and non-educational factors that could be systematized through five diverse and divergent pathways: (a) Upward mobility Pathway, (b) Anti-market Pathway, (c) Socialization Pathway; (d) Meritocracy Pathway; (e) self-expression pathway;
a) Upward mobility Pathway
For these parents, the universe of school choice options is reduced to low fee private schools that in Argentina are catholic schools and the school represents upward social mobility. They tend to rate private schools over public due to strikes. If there is no school, what does my daughter do? stay in the street all day? (I 28). In short, for this group of parents the process of school choice seems to be permeated by the necessity to study to access a better-quality life.
b) Anti-market Pathway
This group of parents share a socialist political standpoint. They emphasize the importance of State interference in education and strongly reject the introduction of market forces in the educational field. I strongly defend public school, for me it has other values, if there is no public school, there are no social values at all” (I 14). In short, for this group of parents, true education is only possible by warding off market forces (Narodowski & Gottau, 2017) and school choice represents a political identity.
c) Socialization Pathway
For this group of parents, the socialization of their children at school was priority. What do I want for my daughter? A place where there are other children with middle class parents (I 9). In general, most of the parents considered variables relative to the social composition of the students of the school and social interaction and they give importance to the values that the school promotes. They seek a friendly atmosphere in line with the profile of their child. In short, for this group of parents the school represents a place where the same language is spoken, and the universe of school choice options seems to be circumscribed to elite private schools.
d) Meritocracy Pathway
For this group of parents, high academic achievement seems to be the main driver of school choice. “What do I expect from the school? The children should be given loads to study …”. (I 7). The process of school choice for this group of parents seems to focus on the learning process of the child. Meritocracy seems to be what best defines the type of education they want for their children, thus reproducing not only their own educational trajectories but also their lifestyle based on effort and lifelong learning.
(e) Self-expression pathway
These families tend to give preeminence to the wellbeing of their children. They are careful not to expose their children to situations that they consider too demanding or uncomfortable. I know what they go through…so those two schools are completely out of the question (I5). The importance given to values related to self-expression and the conception of the child as a person with a relative autonomy guide the guide process of school choice and narrow the options considered possible.
Parents’ preferences of private school choice provide evidence to four out of the eight paradigmatic explanations: teacher strikes in the public sector; processes of socioeconomic segregation and self-segregation; the implementation of neoliberal policies, while both structural and ideational factors position private school choice as a State policy.
New trends in educational policies have helped provide new meanings to settled traditions.
Verónica es investigadora asociada en la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (UTDT) y tiene una maestría en Políticas Educativas de la misma institución. Doctora en Educación en la Universidad de San Andrés.
Mariano Narodowski is currently Professor of Education at Universidad Torcuato di Tella. His research is in the fields of history and future of childhood, compared education systems and education policy.