What 'School Choice' Means for the Future of Education


Last week marked the annual, "National School Choice Week," with events across the country promoting "education options" such as charter schools and vouchers.

Everyone loves “choice,” right? In a country where every year brings us 100 new choices for how to brush our teeth, maximizing “choice” appears to be the holy grail no matter what the enterprise.

It turns out there's a lot wrong with school choice.

As People for the American Way points out,

"National School Choice Week is deliberately designed to blur important differences in educational policies…National School Choice Week wants everyone to be so busy cheering and dancing for the broad concept of giving parents and students educational options that they don't stop to think about these distinctions."

We asked some of our Progressive Education Fellows what they thought about the important "distinctions" regarding the meaning of "choice." Here’s what they said:

Ashana Bigard, Southcentral Regional Fellow

When I hear the word choice, I understand someone is choosing not to invest in black native New Orleans. 

After Hurricane Katrina, 125,000 native New Orleans, a lot of them the poorest and most black, did not come back to New Orleans. And while $71 billion came to New Orleans after the storm, black people here now have 18% less income and wealth. The millions of dollars poured into our education system mostly went to new charter schools and charter management groups and organizations, such as New Schools New Orleans. These groups funnel money to consultants and start ups, many not from New Orleans. In New Orleans we have 97% charter schools and only five traditional schools. And despite the millions being spent, many children and families are not getting what they need. We have 26,000 young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or working. They call them “opportunity youth.” They are products of the new charter school system.

One of the five remaining traditional schools is Benjamin Franklin elementary school, a highly sought after school with good test scores and about 800 children on the waiting list any given year. This year, the new superintendent cut Franklin's funding for afterschool tutoring activities and tutoring for fourth-grade test prep and stopped allowing the children to go on field trips. No one asked parents or children whether any of this was a good idea. It's like they're trying to make a great school into a failing school.

In New Orleans, school choice is the ability of the schools to choose if, how, and where to teach our children.

Dora Taylor, Northwest Regional Fellow

School choice in Seattle meant the "McEducation" of schools in communities of mostly non-white students. Powerful interests behind the charter school industry pressed for closing alternative school programs that were the gems of the district and then attempting to replace them with corporate charter school chains. Charter advocates then proclaimed that students now had a "choice." 

The consequences of the "choice campaign" are false promises and dashed hopes for children who have suffered enough.

Jennifer Berkshire, Northeast Regional Fellow

On the eve of school choice week in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe ran a front page article about the school choice NOT made: universal pre-k. Officially enacted in 2008, universal pre-k in the Bay State remains more “pre” than universal. Unlike the deep-pocketed campaign to increase the number of charter schools, pre-k has no powerful political backers or army of lobbyists. There is no multi-million dollar ad campaign intended to soften up legislatures, or marches across the Boston Common, led by state officials demanding access to quality pre-k now.

Well, there’s one official singing a different tune: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Under fire from parents over yet another round of budget cuts to the Boston Public Schools, Walsh used his State of the City address to call on the state to help provide quality pre-k for every four year old in the city of Boston. To which the state said, well, nothing. While our Republican governor’s State of the State address was heavy on references to parents on charter wait lists, there was no nod to the thousands of parents waiting for pre-k. In fact, Governor Baker made no mention of universal pre-k at all, but renewed his call, yet again, for more charters.

As school choice week winds down, yet more high-profile pols have thrown their weight behind charters—the school choice fix of choice, that by definition can only help a limited number of kids, even as the brutal calculus of school budgets deplete the education choices of the kids who remain in what’s left of the public schools. But nary a mention of a political choice that would help all kids. Why is that?

Peter Greene, Midwest Regional Fellow

You might think that my school district would be safe from the effects of school choice. It’s a small town and rural area, so there’s not much market for a charter-choice school to tap into.

But Pennsylvania has given itself heart and soul to cyber-charters, and that means choice is a factor in every single school district in the state. The financial impact has been severe and crippling. Here’s one quick snapshot. In 2012, about 70 students from my district chose cyber-charters. That cost the district almost $800,000. The reduced cost of operating the district without those 70 students was roughly $0.00. So that same year the district closed two elementary schools in hopes of saving about $800,000.

Do some students benefit from a non-traditional cyber experience? Certainly. But many cyber-students never graduate, or simply return to the public school after accomplishing essentially nothing educationally, an anecdotal perception borne out by research such as the CREDO study showing that cyberschools have overwhelmingly negative results.

So paying for cyberschool choice leads to cut programs, cut teachers, and cut services to students, and in return, we dump money into a program that provides close to zero positive results.

Some choice.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, Westcoast Regional Fellow

The wealthy have poured millions of dollars into “school choice” causes over the last decade. Under the mantra of civil rights, billionaires such as Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers, and the powerful corporate-funded lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are using venture philanthropy and the political process to press for top-down neoliberal school reforms focused on private control and privatization.

The choice mantra should be wrested away from the billionaire funders of neoliberal education “reforms.” Instead of policies that promote choice via top-down private control and privatization, we must invest in community-based, democratically controlled approaches to education. We must hold legislators accountable to fund what nationally polling has demonstrated that parents want for their neighborhood public schools—more parental involvement, less testing, smaller class sizes, quality teachers, and less hunger.

The elephant in the room here is the unfortunate and consistent choices of policymakers to talk incessantly about school choice while purposefully failing to deliver the resources to provision real parental choice in both rich and poor schools.

Sarah Lahm, Northcentral Regional Fellow

Perhaps the most awkward pro-school choice event of all time was held on Tuesday, January 26, at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The event was held at 10:30 a.m., virtually guaranteeing that no teachers and few parents would attend. Instead, the room was filled with a nearly all-white audience of men and women in dark, formal business attire.

The panelists—said to be “bipartisan”—were all white, too. There was former Democratic Minnesota state legislator, Ember Reichgott Junge, who wrote the nation’s first charter school law for Minnesota back in 1991. She was joined onstage by Republican suburban Minneapolis legislator Jennifer Loon, chair of the state’s education finance committee. Loon sat next to the lone out-of-state guest, Dick Komer, of the Virginia-based right-wingInstitute for Justice.

The one person of color who had been asked to come and address the audience was George Parker, best known as Michelle Rhee’s sidekick during her time as school chancellor in Washington, D.C. Rhee could not attend.

The panelists were positioned under a giant ad for school choice week. The ad featured a smiling rainbow of children’s faces, seated together on a classroom rug, in a seemingly joyously integrated classroom. Yet the event’s discussion in no way mirrored the idealized, melting pot world pictured in the ad. Instead, every panelist—and the moderator—insisted that the rapid resegregation of this nation’s public schools—whether charter or district schools—was simply a consequence of “parental choice.”  Moderator Beth Hawkins and panelist Komer referred to attempts to limit the expansion of charter schools as a “frontal attack on choice.” Absolutely no mention was made of the segregationist roots of school choice, and little was made of the fact that charter schools do not, categorically, “outperform” traditional schools.

Komer spoke freely of what “poor” people and single mothers want, which he said included “help” from strict schools with raising their kids. At one point, after declaring that the ability to “teach values,” instill discipline, and require uniforms were the “best aspects” of charter schools, Komer woefully declared that public schools can’t do these things because of “constitutional limitations.”

No one spoke up to challenge Komer. In fact, the moderator and the policymakers on stage with him seemed to be in agreement with him.

When one audience member suggested breaking apart the whole public school system, so that parents could run away from all of the unsavory types who attend those schools, Loon said she supported “striving for maximum choice,” if only it could be practically accomplished.

It is painfully significant that this very unenlightened conversation took place in a school named after one of Minnesota’s most revered native sons, Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey was an unapologetic, unwavering supporter of civil rights and democracy for all. As a 37 year-old candidate for the Senate, he injected a much-needed dose of consciousness raising into the 1948 Democratic National Convention with an iconic speech.

In that speech, Humphrey called the Democratic Party the nation’s oldest, “most truly progressive” political party. When his party wanted to abandon a key civil rights motion—for fair employment—Humphrey eviscerated the cowardliness of such a position:  

"The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People—human beings—this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds—all sorts of people—and these people are looking to America for leadership…."

After listening to the Humphrey School’s one-sided school choice event, I can’t help but wonder where those who value the “bright sunshine of human rights,” as opposed to the promoted nirvana of “personal choice,” should look for leadership.

This article originally appeared at The Progressive.

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