Conflating School Choice with Democracy and Parent Empowerment Is a Scam

Deborah Meier was once a strong proponent of school choice. Today she fears for the future of public education.

Photo Credit: Insideschools.org

The following is an excerpt from the new book These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can't Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi (Beacon Press, 2017), available for purchase on Amazon:

In the past, I pushed strongly for choice, mostly attempting to sway my skeptical progressive allies. I argued that it wasn’t necessary to buy into the conservative rhetoric about the rigors of the marketplace and the inherent mediocrity of public institutions. By using choice judiciously, I argued, we could have the virtues of the marketplace without its worse vices; similarly, we could mine the best practices of private schools without undermining public education.

Counter to the push for free-market competition, I argued for choice as a democratic virtue. The ideal would be to make a wide range of interesting learning environments available to families within their very own neighborhoods, much like we did in New York City’s District 4, where choice unleashed a wave of reforms as a means, not an end, for releasing the energies of educators with innovative ideas. This, of course, would require following the lead of District 4 in giving all public schools the same autonomy to innovate that, with a few exceptions, is a privilege enjoyed only at charter schools.

District 4, with its all low-income, almost entirely Latino and Black student population, also made a dent in the city’s segregated system by attracting some middle-class families who were interested in the specialized programming and small-school settings. Unfortunately, this trend toward integration has reversed, with  “choice” being used as a euphemism for offering very different options for poor families than those available to their privileged peers.

The mission statement of the American Federation for Children (AFC), a prominent school-choice advocacy foundation established and bankrolled by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, states that they strive to “empower parents, especially those in low-income families, to choose the education they determine is best for their children”; and in a recent statement, AFC president Kevin Chavous argued that allowing parents to choose their child’s school “is the most democratic of ideas.”  

But conflating choice with meaningful parent empowerment and with democracy is a scam. Why? First, because in reality, marginalized parents are not the “choosers” under most choice plans—and least of all when it comes to vouchers. The schools, after all, can do the choosing, and unless we change the way most charter laws and private schools operate, they can not only decide who they admit but, in various ways, whom to expel and counsel out. Second, for poor families “choice” has become almost synonymous with the proliferation of no-excuses schools, environments defined by harsh disciplinary practices resembling the zero-tolerance policies that have so deeply scarred the very communities they serve. And, third, “choice” splits communities by creating competition for spaces and prestige in different schools and this undermining a community’s political power.

Another common claim made among choice advocates is that competition will pressure district schools to “improve”—“If we  can raise student test scores, why can’t you?” the thinking goes. Another distortion made under current reforms is that school improvement can be boiled down to improving the test scores of poor Black and Latino children. This is, of course, an absurd proposition, given that public schools must take all comers, while charters can employ recruitment tactics designed to reach a selected audience. Fewer children with designated “special needs” or who are English-language learners are accepted into charters, and students with learning or behavioral difficulties who do get into charters leave them at a higher rate than they do with in-system schools. Ultimately, it is more accurate to say that competition works as a wedge that weakens the kind of social and political cohesion that communities (whether within schools or neighborhoods) need to help everyone build a better future for themselves and, importantly, for the common good.

My fear of choice writ large is that it will weaken the sense that we’re all in this together—so essential to the fabric of a democratic society. Communal solidarity is too important a human characteristic for us to deliberately undermine it. We must feel invested in the overall well-being of our own and others’ communities if we are to create a more just society. Communities that have fewer and fewer common institutions become limited in their clout. The needed solidarity disappears faster—and becomes harder to reawaken.

Family engagement involves much more than providing a menu of no-excuses and other segregated “second-class” schools from which to choose. Meaningful family inclusion necessitates that schools create a host of enabling structures: effective two-way channels of communication; clear processes for taking part in decisions affecting their children, which should include the right to appeal such decisions to an independent decision-making body; open forums in which to provide input and to vote on significant matters affecting the school community; and an open invitation to visit the school and classroom, as well as to get to know their child’s teacher over time. The culture of individualism and competition that characterizes the current school-choice movement is not conducive to fostering any of these essential conditions in schools.

As many readers may have noted, there were many surface-level similarities between conditions that made District 4 a model for future reforms and many of the characteristics of the current reform movement. However, though District 4 may have influenced—or at least added fuel to—a broader, and what would turn out to be a divisive, school-choice movement, I also hope that readers recognize some essential differences. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of creating a system of choice that is rooted within each neighborhood, allowing families to choose a school without leaving the community if they don’t want to. At the same time, it was important, for the sake of integration, to open schools to some interdistrict movement so that families could choose schools based on their offerings and not on location alone. At bottom, until neighborhoods are more integrated than they are today, we will need to examine the contexts that will allow us to balance building community with allowing for individual choices.

Excerpted from These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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Deborah Meier is the author of many books and articles, including The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem, and In Schools we Trust. She has been working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer, advocate since the early 1960s, and ranks among the most acclaimed leaders of the school reform movement in the U.S.