By Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy. Originally published at Education Opportunity Network
Another week, another round of evidence that providing parents with more “school choice,” especially the kind that lets them opt out of public schools, is not a very effective vehicle for ensuring students improve academically or that taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely.
The latest evidence comes from a study of the voucher program in Washington, DC that allows parents to transfer their children from public to private schools at taxpayer expense. The study found that students “who attended a private school through the program performed worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use the vouchers,” reports the New York Times.
Despite these results, many proponents of school choice contend the purpose of school choice was never about generating better results. It’s about choice for choice’s sake.
Results Don’t Matter?
That seems to be what US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos argues in her reaction to the news about the apparent failure of the DC voucher program. As the Washington Post reports, the report prompted her to say, “When school choice policies are fully implemented, there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools.”
That reaction struck education historian Diane Ravitch as an implication that “results don’t matter.” She writes on her personal blog, “If you parse this sentence, what she is saying is that when everyone chooses, none of the schools will be better than any others. They will all get the same results, even if they are dismal. The purpose of choice is choice.”
Ravitch points to an op-ed in a local DC paper that argues the “while point” of choice is for parents to pick schools they believe to be “best” for their children, regardless of the nature of the school or the results of its program.
The writer compares education to breakfast cereal, arguing that some parents may prefer Cheerios while some prefer other brands. What’s the big deal?
This line of reasoning aligns with DeVos’s recent comments comparing schools to all sorts of consumer goods. As the Associated Press reports, in a recent address she made at an education technology conference, DeVos compared school choice to switching phone carriers. “If you can’t get cell phone service in your living room,” she says, “you should have the option to find a network that does work.”
In another of her pronouncements about school choice, she compared education options to ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.
For anyone who’s been paying attention, DeVos’s remarks aren’t surprising.
Seven years ago, when a study of the school voucher program in Milwaukee came to a disappointing conclusion similar to the more recent studies mentioned above, it prompted Charles Murray –co-author of the eugenics-inspired treatise The Bell Curve – to respond, basically, “So what!”
Writing in the New York Times, he argued that results from the study of the Milwaukee program didn’t much matter. “Our children’s education is extremely important to us,” he wrote, “and the greater good doesn’t much enter into it.” (Point of irony: Murray argues against using test scores as meaningful measures of school performance, yet the title of his infamous book is a direct reference to how test scores are distributed on a graph.)
More recently, editors of The Economist ruminated over the DC voucher study and concluded the negative results meant, “A parent with a voucher may increasingly think twice about using it. That is a good choice to have.”
The Ultimate Choice
All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community.
Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms. But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.
And no one has a right to Cheerios, interruption-free cellphone service, or a ride home from the bar. But everyone does have a right to an education.
Further, when you extend the argument of choice for choice’s sake out to its logical conclusion, you’re led to the conclusion parents should have the option to skip educating their children altogether. Don’t laugh. A newly elected Representative in the Arizona legislature recently told a local news reporter, “The number one thing I would like to repeal is the law on compulsory education.
“Education used to be a privilege,” he laments. “Now we basically force it down everybody’s throats.”
His comments prompted education journalist Valerie Strauss to write on her blog at the Washington Post, “Compulsory education has a long history in this country, actually predating it … Education has long been seen not only as a personal ticket to a better life in this country but also as essential for the health of the democratic enterprise.”
Strauss quotes a columnist for the Arizona paper who, after reading the views of her state lawmaker, responded “Oh the horror, of trying to create an educated citizenry. Of forcing kids to actually learn something … Much better, I suppose, to let them stay home, ignorant and hungry and so not our problem. Until someday, when they are.”
Too Important For Choice
None of this is to say parents should have no education choices for their children at all.
But Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York school principal who now leads the Network for Public Education, makes an important distinction about choice in education in her recent commentary at the Washington Post. “Public school choice programs, if carefully managed, can serve students well and/or promote a social good, she writes. “Privatized school choice, in contrast, is quite different. Privatized school choice is the public financing of private alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis original)
Burris goes on to explain that privatized school choice in many instances has led to negative consequences for the community, including crippling the funding of its local schools while enriching wealthy individuals and adding additional layers of administration and bureaucracy.
“We supported education with our tax dollars not to give individual children advantage,” she writes, “but to build a nation by teaching our children about the blessings of democracy in a publicly governed community school.”
Some things are just too important for choice.
In my recent conversation with progressive radio talk show host Rick Smith, he makes that interesting point in saying, “I don’t want choice.”
He argues that when he gets sick, he wants access to a qualified doctor with up-to-date facilities, and for his children’s education, he wants to know there’s going to be a school nearby with qualified teachers who have the resources they need.
“Why would I want a bad choice?” he asks.