Sunday, January 22, 2017

No, Betsy, School Choice Is Not a Good Thing

With choice champion, Betsy DeVos, under consideration for Secretary of Education, I thought it would be a good time to revisit what school choice really means. This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, published by Garn Press.


What could be more American than choice? The country was founded on the principle of freedom of choice in speech, in religion, in the press, in assembly. Corporate education reformers tap into this most American of values by stating that parents, who after all pay for their child’s education through taxes, should have choice in where they send their children to school. If a school is not performing well, and for the reformers this means the school is achieving low test scores, parents should have the right to choose a different school. As reformers are often heard to say, “zip code should not be destiny.” In other words, where you go to school and the quality of the school you go to should not be determined by where you live. 

For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”

This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes (and efforts to limit affordable housing). A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded to access to these “high-achieving” school districts by economic inequity. 

Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance. 

While all of this may sound good and may appeal to the American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.  

Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe. 

I am also old enough to remember when seat belts were first introduced into cars in the late fifties and how we were more likely to sit on them than strap them around our waists. Using the seat belt was a choice. While we can still make that choice, when we do so we are breaking the law and can be fined for failure to “buckle-up.” The government came to realize that our choices needed to be limited for the public good. Seat belts saved lives and saved medical costs and so our choice was legislated away. 

Like many of my generation, I was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days there was much talk about choosing to withhold that part of our taxes that was being used to wage the war. Those who tried this were brought to court by the Internal Revenue Service. The courts, of course, ruled that because the government was charged by the Constitution to “provide for the common defense”, the government had every right to collect my taxes for the military. I was free to choose to speak out against the war, assemble peacefully to protest the war and write letters to the editor about the war, but I could not withhold my taxes. My choices were limited by law. 

In our society we have come to recognize that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds and resources available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking and seat belts and the military, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy. 

For more on the damage that charter schools and vouchers do to public education see my earlier posts here and here.