The appointment of Michigan billionaire, Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education earlier this year brought the issue “school choice” front and center to education community circles. As US World News and Report opinion columnist Andrew Rotherham notes, “there is not a singular history of school choice.” The idea of school choice first came to fore in the 1950s as a means of resisting racial integration. In the modern era, Sec. DeVos has praised the concept as liberating, providing parents with more choice in what schools their children attend. So this brings us to an important question: Does school choice pass the test?
On the one hand, social conservatives and Sec. DeVos argue efforts under the Obama administration to increase funding for low performing school have failed, and giving parents more choice in where they can send their students is the solution. On the other hand, education policy advocates and teachers unions contend school choice will hurt students as money will be siphoned from schools that need it to private schools that cater to the elite. Although Sec. DeVos is correct to point out that our public education system has its shortfalls, the solution does not lie in the free market, but rather public policies that make it easier for families to escape poverty and move up the economic ladder.
Proponents of school choice most often argue voucher programs allow low-income and minority students from failing schools to attend good schools, therefore increasing likelihood of success later on in life. While this may be true, there is no evidence that supports this claim. In studying school voucher systems in Indiana and Louisiana, the Brookings Institution concluded, “public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools scored lower compared to similar students who did not attend private schools.” Private schools carry the reputation of outperforming their public counterparts simply because, unlike public schools, they have the liberty to hand pick their students. Unsurprisingly, they usually pick students whose socio-economic status grants them the ability to seek help with their schoolwork from their parents or hire private tutors. As the evidence clearly suggests, simply picking up a student in a low-performing school and placing them in a well-performing school does not enhance that child’s learning.
Furthermore, school choice options would be detrimental for disabled students. Lindsay Jones, a public policy analyst for the National Center for Learning Disabilities observed, “Private schools accepting vouchers can make admission decisions based on the individual educational needs of each applicant, ultimately resulting in the exclusion of many students with disabilities.” In other words, while federal law guarantees a free public education for all students, under a school voucher system, private schools can decide which students they accept and which they do not. Therefore, there would be no incentive for private and charter schools to accept students who are disabled or not performing at their grade level.
School choice and voucher systems would also increase school segregation. As the Brookings Institute acknowledges, “more choice is associated with minority students attending less diverse schools. For the 2010-11 school year, a 10-percentage-point increase in charter enrollment is associated with a decline of 16 percentage points in minority students’ exposure to non-minority students.” According to these findings, expanding school choice would deteriorate the widely accepted belief that heterogeneous environments are best for student learning. In researching student learning environments, Multi Briefs concludes that “the richness of ideas and perspectives [in heterogeneous learning environments], as well as the shared learning help to benefit each student in the group.” Essentially, expanding school choice would only further adversely affect student learning by promoting the stratification of students along religious, racial, and economic backgrounds.
Another talking point of those in favor of school choice is that competition among schools will punish failing schools while rewarding proficient ones. The conservative think tank Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) praises school choice, concluding, “competition leads to superior results.” What these authors are forgetting is that when a school fails, so do all the students within it. Superior results aside, forcing our schools to compete against each other for resources is both injudicious and overlooks the real goal of ensuring every child has the means necessary to live up to their potential in life. Additionally, this mindset assumes that public schools set out to fail students. Not true. Teachers don’t invest money in a bachelor’s degree, continue their learning to keep their certification active, or spend countless, unpaid hours prepping for classes simply to fail their students.
Quoting the 1966 Coleman Report, John Hopkins Magazine highlights, “the most important predictor of a child's performance in school [isn’t] the school building or resources. It [is] home life. It [is] family.” In other words, the issue is not a lack of choice, or a need for competition. The issue is that poor and middle class families haven’t seen a wage increase for decades, forcing parents to work longing hours for less money and spend less time with their kids. The issue is rural, poor Americans have been disproportionately affected by an opioid crisis that is taking the lives of 91 Americans every day. The issue is low-income inner city families are being subjected to gentrification. A scenario where wealthier, usually white Americans move to the inner-city, but send their children to private schools — pricing poor families families out their homes and leading to the closure of their schools. School choice does nothing to help the vast achievement gap which exists between rich and poor students.
While we all can agree that the American education system isn’t perfect, demonizing public schools, belittling teachers, and turning to free market policies are certainly not the solution. Ultimately, school choice benefits those who are already well off and leaves behind the most vulnerable among us. The problem is not a lack of choice, it’s a lack of empathy for those who have been dealt a rough hand.