The Problem with School 'Choice'

We Americans love choice. Just look at the cereal aisle in Giant Eagle. You could choose a different box every day of the month and still have more varieties left to try. But public schools are not corn flakes. Here’s the problem with “choice” when we’re talking about public education.

When we’re in the cereal aisle, we are consumers looking for our favorite brand, the best price, or perhaps grabbing a box of sugar filled junk with a toy surprise inside to appease our screaming two year old who won’t stay in the cart (been there). But schools are public goods, not consumer goods. Think about other public goods and services that you use, such as public safety. We don’t want to choose from different police providers, we want our local police department to be great: to offer high-quality service that meets the needs of our local community.

We don’t need more choices in public education. We need great public schools in every community, that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option.

Choice is a free market ideology. Markets do a good job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality: you can stick five kinds of dirt in those cereal boxes and offer them as a “choice,” but nobody wants to eat that. Pennsylvania teacher and blogger Peter Greene compares school choice to the drive to mediocrity in the cable TV industry and explains, “Market forces do not foster superior quality. Market forces foster superior marketability.”

The parent-as-consumer model promotes school choice as an individual choice, abrogating our responsibility as citizens to provide great public schools for all children. Public schools are community institutions that must meet the needs of communities. As education historian Diane Ravitch explains:

The more that policy makers promote choice … the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educates citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers. [Reign of Error, p. 311]

Now, does this mean all choice is bad? Of course not. Americans have long made choices between sending their children to public or private schools. And between religious and other private, independent schools. Or even homeschooling. That’s fine. Families should make those choices if they want to.

We’ve also had long agreement in the U.S. that the public ought not to pay for private education. Yet under the guise of “choice,” corporate-style education reformers have pushed voucher and tax-credit programs diverting public resources to private schools. Pennsylvania’s two EITC programs cost tax-payers $150 million a year and provide no accountability to the public: we don’t know how those dollars get spent nor how the students are performing in those private and religious schools using our tax dollars.

In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the tax-credit programs are actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education. With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships funded with taxpayer dollars. The lack of accountability creates a situation ripe for corruption, as has occurred in others states. What’s more, this “choice” program serves over 38,000 students in Pennsylvania – far more than Pittsburgh Public Schools – effectively making it the second largest school district in the state, with zero accountability to the public. So much for informed choice.

What about other kinds of school choice? Despite what corporate-style education reformers like to say, simply giving parents “choices” has not produced better results for students. Quality magnet programs (such as Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts high school or Sci-Tech school) and some public charter schools provide excellent education for the lucky few students who secure spots in them. But this kind of “choice” has not improved education for all students who deserve access to the kind of opportunities touted by these programs.

Indeed, investment in these kinds of “choices” has too often come at the cost of the remaining public schools that serve the vast majority of students. And far too many charter schools do not provide quality education at all. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom three worst in the nation in charter school performance. The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year.

As the Education Opportunity Network points out in a terrific political analysis of the choice phenomenon, “the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school – as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents – or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and provides no benefits of prestigious private schools.”

We should also be concerned about the way in which corporate-style reformers promote “school choice” in place of authentic parent engagement. For instance, one tip sheet for parents recommends, “The more research you do, the better choices you can make. With time and legwork, you can provide your child with access to a great educational environment. I like to tell people that they should spend more time looking at schools for their children then they do when they shop around for a new car.” Um, what if we don’t treat our public schools like cars or cornflakes? What if parents didn’t have to spend time and legwork finding a great educational environment for their kids, because the local public school provided exactly that?

With National School Choice Week just behind us, it’s a good time to pause and ask: if two decades of “school choice” has not helped the vast majority of students, why is it still being promoted as the “cure” for what ails our public schools? If “choice” programs drain precious taxpayer dollars away from public schools, who is actually benefitting from them? (Hint: see how some of the backers of National School Choice Week, including the American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst PA, made our “Big $” list of those shaping education policy.)

It’s time to stop celebrating “choice” and get serious about quality public schools as community institutions. “Choosy mothers choose JIF!” is about selling peanut butter, not great education for our kids.


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