What the Proponents Say
The idea of school choice rests on the premise that students can receive a better education if their parents have the opportunity to choose a school that is the best fit for their child. This sounds like common sense and rather benign, especially if the local schools are run down and rowdy with jaded and overworked teachers in loud, rambunctious classrooms, not conducive to learning. Given that set of options, I would send my kids out of the area for school as well if it were feasible. Who wouldn’t want to take a voucher or use private school scholarship aid to ensure their child can have access to the best education they can get. The competition will cause better performing schools to attract more clients (students), while the poor performing schools will lose or shut down. How do we judge the performance of schools? Standardized tests scores (product), of course.
Education should perhaps mimic the private sector and seek to limit the influence of organized labor. Teachers’ unions are an impediment to change and innovation in the public school system. They have a vested interest in keeping things the same, of course they want to keep their jobs and do not want any competition. At every turn, they stifle new ideas and educational models that may lead to more success for our children. School choice will likely lead to the weakening or eventual dismantling of the unions and allow management (administration) to get rid of bad teachers (employees) without all the lengthy due process.
If one is not educated on the issues, it is quite easy to fall for this line of reasoning. I am the first to admit that the public school system is far from ideal, in fact it’s in horrible shape. But here is an idea, ‘why not fully invest in and commit to our public schools’?
This is not even considered because the goal of the proponents of school choice is not to bolster public education but to weaken and maybe eliminate it altogether.
School Choice and Racism
The history of the school choice/ voucher movement is important in discussing this matter. Its roots lie in the post Brown vs. Board of Education decision when white Southerners refused to send their children to school with black children, so they cooked up this voucher program to send their children to private, parochial schools. The goal is still to divert funds and students from public schools into private institutions, but now there is a colonial type assimilation aspect to it to take students of color from their own neighborhoods and expose them to superior schools and communities. This not only racist but a violation of the separation of church and state.
So-called school choice assumes that students must leave their communities to get a good education, while there is no evidence to suggest that vouchers or charters offer better educational results. These communities are disproportionately communities of color. School choice actually defunds communities and funnels the wealth to more affluent ones as the money follows the child. The most vulnerable children in these poor neighborhoods will quite predictably be stuck in schools more underfunded than they are now. Those without access to transportation, those children enrolled in Special Education programs, which are disproportionately African Ameican, and those whose parents are not pro-active enough to get their kids in better schools will be victimized by such a policy.
It shifts responsibility of education to the parent and only ‘bad’ parents don’t do the footwork of getting their kids into the best schools, thus strengthening the racist, cultural deficit model to explain school failure among minority groups. Most parents do not have ready access to educational data to allow them to make the wisest decisions regarding education. Special Education students will suffer, as many private schools that receive these vouchers do not serve Sped students, thus syphoning more money from the local schools that do. The students lose.
This is often framed and advertised to low income minorities as a matter of freedom to choose the best school for their children, thus the term ‘school choice’. What it actually does is take away the choice of low income families to get a good education for their children in their own community. Communities will have their resources taken away in favor of white communities and the victims will be disproportionately people of color when all the while, evidence suggests that most parents think their neighborhood schools are doing fine.
The Hidden Agenda
It is counterintuitive to deal with the problems of public schools by diverting funds from public schools and leaving them to languish with the most difficult students without the proper funds and support to serve them. One does not simply overlook the most obvious process of investigating what the problems are and investing time and funds to fix them and perhaps even overhaul the public school system with the help of the experts, teachers and unions. Instead of collaborating with teachers, politicians shove reforms down their throats without their input and when the unions complain or resist, they are portrayed as the problem, as inflexible, corrupt etc. Perhaps there are powerful elements that do not want to include the expertise of teachers or even improve public education.
How else does one skip the most obvious route to improving the educational system to hair-brained schemes that divert funds and students to private institutions and charter schools? Perhaps the public model is not the one preferred. This is going on in the overall context of a raiding of the ‘commons’. Public institutions are under attack. Private interests want everything and public education is viewed as an untapped goldmine. Standardized assessments are demanding more and more without equipping educators to meet the standards or even considering the circumstances that are faced by students and teachers in the classroom and then penalizing them for coming up short. There has been a plan long underway to dismantle public education in part by sabotaging it and allowing private and semi private schemes to take its place.
Education is not an island. School inequality is inevitable in an unequal society under and unequal system. We cannot fix public schools without fixing the communities that surround them. Inequality is ‘the’ American problem, every institution is historically rooted in race and class oppression, be it health care, education, criminal justice, law enforcement, housing, you name it. We will see no improvement in any of this if we just wait for the system to change on its own or hope some politician or leader will make it right. Only a fierce movement from below led by the actual victims of these policies, the parents, students, teachers, workers, the poor and oppressed to take an uncompromising stance against this entire system.
Students will not learn if their community is under siege, no matter how great the school is. If their parents are locked up, unemployed and unstable and the students are hungry, alienated and angry, this raises an affective filter that is hard to break. Bolstering public education is not the silver bullet to equality, but it can be a start and we are hopeless without it.
This administration has the vultures lined up to eat away at the carcass of every public institution and remaining safeguard of the most vulnerable. Our Secretary of Education, who thinks black colleges are a result of school choice is already poised to continue the racist legacy of the movement. The commodification of education and its subjugation to the market cheapens the idea of public education as a public good and essential for a functioning democracy. It is a good to be traded, bought and sold. School choice is no answer to the problems plaguing public schools or faced by students and does nothing to close the achievement gap, in fact, it may exacerbate it.