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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

School Choice: An Ugly Idea

An ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Some Choices Are Just Ugly
The quote above comes from an essay in The New York Times titled Now is the Time to Talk about What We Are Actually Talking About. The quote resonates with me right now because my country seems to be awash in ugly ideas emanating from the centers of power in Washington and apparently resonating with many of my fellow Americans across the country. Here are just a few of these ugly ideas that I fear are beginning to turn a distinct shade of normal.
  • America should isolate itself from the rest of the world.
  • We must live in fear of people who do not look like us.
  • We must build literal and figurative walls to keep people out of the country.
  • We should return to harsher penalties for minor offenses and renew the war on drugs.
  • Climate change is a hoax and efforts to control it are bad for American business.
  • Health care is for those who can afford it.
I will let political pundits and journalists and policy analysts and others with more expertise than I weigh in on these issues. But there is one ugly idea that I do know something about and that I must challenge now because it becomes increasingly the color of normal. That idea is championed by the current resident of the White House, although he has likely given it very little thought, very dangerously championed by the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and most dangerously championed by the billionaires that more and more control all that happens in this country.

I am talking about the ugly idea that school choice and competition will lead to better schools. School choice ideology is born in racism, sustained by a concerted disinformation campaign, and designed to develop a work force of compliant worker drones, while further enriching the wealthy and undermining democratic control of the schools. School choice, better called school privatization, will destroy public education. That is its purpose. 

The racist roots of school choice are well documented. The original voucher programs were designed in the 1950s in the wake of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to give southern white parents public monies to send their children to newly created all-white private schools. What may be less well understood is that charter schools continue, perhaps more subtly, the racist goals of the original voucher programs. Two of the most well-publicized and supposedly successful charter school progams, KIPP and New York City's Success Academies, were largely built by white people, who decided that what was best for their mostly brown-faced charges was to submit them to a harsh, military style system of discipline, built on compliance, blind obeisance to adults, and shaming and humiliation for minor infractions. These are charter schools built on the plantation model. 

In order to sell the idea of school choice, i.e., school privatization, choice champions had to first sell the false narrative of failing schools. Americans had a long tradition of valuing their public schools, in part because the schools were generally doing a good job and in part because all citizens had a voice in how they were run and how their tax money was spent. In order to change the narrative, privatizers pointed to international test scores, deteriorating schools in the inner-cities, and reports from economists that seemed to show that this could all be changed if we just fired the low performing teachers and rewarded the high performers. So in  many cities, local elected school boards were replaced by appointed boards, the public lost its voice, public coffers were raided to open charter schools, who promised but mostly failed to deliver, improvement, and the public schools further deteriorated for lack of funds (See Philadelphia and Detroit).

This narrative was based on some very real problems in public education, but it targeted schools, teachers, and teacher unions as the cause of the problem, when the real causes of the problem were clear to any thinking person - poverty, inequity, and segregation. We had and still have in this country, despite two decades of voucher and charter school schemes, a dual public school system: high functioning, first rate institutions for the affluent and unsafe, physically deteriorating, academically challenged school systems for the poor. This is not a teaching problem, it is a societal problem. Local schools reflect the local community. If the community is struggling with poverty, crime, and housing issues, the schools will struggle, too. School choice is an attempt by the wealthy to reform the school system on the cheap and distract all of us from the true problems in the society, which would require a much greater financial investment to fix - namely poverty and income inequity.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, urban public schools including those in large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, and smaller cities like Rochester and Trenton were among the best in the world. As a society, we have failed these school systems, largely through discriminatory housing policies, prejudice, neglect, and "white flight." Now the best schools in the country are mostly in the suburbs. More affluent families took their children and their tax dollars out of the cities as minorities moved in and essentially abandoned these once great urban schools. Now, suburban schools function on comparatively generous budgets, in first-rate facilities (the families will allow no less) while urban schools fight for scraps.

The scraps that these urban schools fight for are further undermined by the school choice movement, which takes money away from the public schools and places it into the hands of charter operators or parents in the form of vouchers, often without public input. So struggling public schools struggle even more, kids who cannot avail themselves of vouchers or charters for a variety of reasons get less and less service and school districts in Philadelphia and Detroit are on the verge of collapse.

Secretary DeVos responds to all questions and concerns about the impact of choice, by saying all she wants is for parents to have a choice and all will be well. Her argument is absurd on the surface. What if choice schools discriminate? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if choice schools teach creationism? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if most of the monies for school choice go to supplement tuition to private schools for the already affluent? Well as long as parents have choice...? But as I have said before, this country, and the entire civilized world, has long recognized that choice is not always a good thing. That is why we have public works. That is why we have a military. That is why we have local and state police forces. That is why we have national parks (at least for now).

We need to see the move to privatize public schools for what it really is. As my college professor, Dr. Benjamin Powell, would say, "Follow the money." DeVos, Trump and the rest of the 1% of the country see public education, and the tax dollars collected to sustain it, as one of the last frontiers for big profits and that money is just sitting there to be grabbed up. All they have to do is convince people that the public schools are failing and that the answer is choice and that money starts to flow towards them. And, oh by the way, we have seen in the charter industry over the last 20 years that once that cash starts flowing, so does the corruption, as lax oversight has led to repeated stories of pilfering and misappropriating public monies. 

To say that school choice is an ugly idea, does not mean that our public schools are not struggling. But the struggle of public schools is best seen, as has been shown over and over again, as a symptom of a societal breakdown, as the result of increasing economic and resource inequity and segregation. True reform of the schools, like all true reform, will require focused attention on all those things that place our society in crisis. School choice is nothing more than a dirty bandage on an open wound. It will do more harm than good. A more equitable society is our surest path to improved schools and improved outlooks for those educated in our public schools.

At its root, public education is a beautiful idea. It is the idea that all children have the right to the best possible education and that all Americans will contribute to make it happen. There have been many missteps along the way, but that beautiful idea, though tarnished, remains beautiful. It deserves our continued care and dedication.

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