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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XIII) - Freedom of School Choice: The Pros and Cons -

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In January of 1997, the Ministry of Education delivered a "Notification on the Flexible Implementation of School Zone Systems'" to the Boards of Education of all prefectures throughout the country, and confirmed a policy which confirmed the right of pupils to attend schools outside their own school zone, depending on the circumstances. The "circumstances" assumed in it are mainly bullying or school refusal, physical reasons, distance and the like. However, in Tokyo and elsewhere, there are now some districts that, in practice, allow school choice because of the concerns of some parents and guardians to give their children a "better education" and personal preference. The real reasons for parents and guardians wanting to send children to a school other than the assigned school are numerous, and include school size and reputation, the desire to allow children to attend the same schools as their friends from kindergarten or primary school, or concerns that the assigned school will be closed or combined with another because of the decline in the number of pupil or school-age children, and in this trend we see the beginnings of the liberalization of school choice.

The aforementioned Ministry of Education notification was made as a response to a proposal in a report "Promoting Deregulation (Number 2)" by the Committee on National Administrative Reform in December 1996, and the trend towards liberalization is in keeping with its guidelines. Also, many progressive critics and intellectuals view this as a favorable trend. However, we must honestly and thoroughly consider the question of whether or not, as social policy, this really is a desirable thing.

The main reasons that people want to attend a school different from the assigned school are (1) it is a countermeasure enabling children to escape bullying, (2) dissatisfaction with irrational zoning that means pupils have to travel long distances to attend the assigned school, (3) the wish to attend the same school as friends from kindergarten or primary school, (4) special circumstances where the assigned school seems to have disorder problems or is about to be closed or combined with another school, (5) the inclination to attend or to allow children to attend a school that has a good reputation or that better suits one's preferences.

Of these, (1) and (2) are circumstances that have been recognized in the past by the flexible employment of the rules. In the author's opinion, however, (3), (4), and (5) should not be recognized except for in very special circumstances. Number (3) harbors a logic of discrimination or exclusion whereby certain children are avoided and ostracized. As for (4), while there are some cases in which special circumstances must be recognized, this is only when the anxieties or requests of those concerned are justifiable. However, if we must recognize the requests of large numbers of pupils in such cases, some substantial measures should be taken to quickly improve those schools that pupils are trying to avoid.

The problem is Number (5). The arguments which support it are (a) the theory that individuals (guardians and children) should not be discouraged from pursuing their preferences or concerns, (b) arguments which place value on protecting the right to school choice and the expansion of school choice, (c) arguments which say that individual determination and responsibility are a source of vitality in society and something to which society should aspire, and (d) the principle of competition will bring new life to schools.

All of these arguments have some basis if we view education and schools as the same as ordinary commodities, but there are the following basic problems: First, unlike ordinary commodities that have a fixed value at the time of sale, the commodities we are calling "school" and "education" are things that schools, teachers, and pupils produce and complete together. Liberalization of school choice is something that brings the logic of discrimination and exclusion into that process of production. Being able to choose schools means that schools make distinctions between pupils, and students who have been admitted discriminate against and exclude those who have not. Second, as is obvious if we think about the entrance examination competition and the excessive emphasis that is placed on academic background, formal education as a system has structural characteristics which bring greater advantages and opportunities to some but disadvantages to others. Third, school choice recognizes that there are differences in quality (superiority and inferiority) between schools, and schools are given a rank. However, isn't basic and civic education as a common experience fundamental to education at the primary and junior high school level? Fourth, as it is difficult to imagine that kindergarten or primary school pupils are able to judge "good schools," the preferences and concerns of guardians will influence school choice, and school choice will reflect cultural and social differences and prejudices. This cannot fail to nurture consciousness of differences in schools and prejudices in children from an early age. Fifth, as a result of school choice, it will take children longer to get to school, cost parents move in transportation expenses, and children's lives will be further cut off from the local community.

Don't most guardians wish for nothing more than for their child to be able to spend lively and enjoyable days, developing his or her abilities in the safe environment of a neighborhood school? I think it is important to value the creation of schools which can respond to this expectation, and provide the conditions that make this possible.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" March, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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