School Choice Fails Students and Parents

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It has been a decade since I raised this question, Parental Choice?, after spending about a year examining all the research available as well as the public and political debate about school choice.

Now, Education Week seems to have finally recognized some of the conclusions I presented in that book: Why Don’t Parents Always Choose the Best Schools? I think it is important that this article does not ask “if” parents choose the best schools, but concedes that parental choice is a flawed part of the school choice as an avenue to educational reform argument.

In short, my research and analysis show that parental choice and school choice fail because they suffer from the same problem concerning all choice driven by America’s idealized perception of individual freedom and market economies. If school choice were a powerful and effective lever for positive educational reform (and it isn’t), market forces remain indirect ways to create the sort of equity of opportunity that a democracy could accomplish directly.

Choice, at best, is slow and erratic, depending on the quality and expertise of the consumers to eventually shape the outcomes desired all along. Pop music is exactly what consumers have created through supply and demand, but we are under no illusion that pop music success equals the highest quality of music possible. High-quality music may have a better chance of being produced by musicians fully publicly funded by NEA grants and left free of corrupting market dynamics.

The consumer choice/quality dynamic in school choice is the problem that Arianna Prothero is acknowledging and confronting in EdWeek.

The research and outcomes related to school choice have always been mixed at best, and the school choice debate has been marred by shifting talking points (different types of choice schemes and different outcomes promised). Since support from school choice is often ideological or driven by the inequity experienced in public education, however, the following patterns continue to characterize the debate:

  • Parents participating in school choice focus more often on cultural and ideological commitments rather than academic quality. School choice, then, is more likely to create stratified schools and not work as a lever for motivating higher academic quality across all schooling. School choice is not proof that a rising tide lifts all boats, but proof that given the opportunity, people will segregate themselves in a lot of different boats while disregarding the threat of drowning facing some of them.
  • School choice unintentionally feeds into the tyranny of parents at the exclusion of children’s autonomy and human rights. Secular public schools should be an opportunity for all children to experience a democracy of ideas and become the humans those children choose to be. Students shepherded into academic settings that perpetuate narrow ideals and ideas dictated by the parents are denied their choices and opportunities.
  • Marginalized and underserved populations (impoverished, Black communities, English language learners, etc.) do often welcome school choice as a possible avenue to greater equity of opportunity; that promise has also proven to be empty, but underserved populations’ support for school choice is also misread. School choice and charter schools have driven school re-segregation (clearly not a positive outcome for Black parents and students) and has not guaranteed that all students have the opportunities found in elite private schools (the choice of wealthy and mostly white parents). If public schools simply served all students well and fully, then the support for school choice found among marginalized groups would disappear.
  • Rarely do any advocates for school choice acknowledge that the qualities commonly found among expensive private schools—what the wealthy choose—are aspects of school reform that could be implemented in all public schools if there was the political will to do so. However, low student-teacher ratios, challenging course work (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and expansive fine arts programs somehow are not on the education reform agenda for all students.
  • The school choice debate ultimately fails because it doesn’t pull back far enough and acknowledge that public schools should be of a universally high quality that makes choice unnecessary. As a culture, we do not allow the market to determine which bridges we drive across are safe or not; all of us driving expect a minimum high quality of bridges on all public roads and highways. As I have concluded before:

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

  • School choice advocates fail to consider the indirect and haphazard mechanisms of market forces. School choice not only re-segregates schools, but also creates a huge amount of wasteful churn—students moving among schools along with teachers and even the shifting of school building. The great charter overthrow experienced in New Orleans post-Katrina, for example, has replaced all the public schools with charter schools—with essentially the exact same educational problems remaining for the students, parents, and community.
  • School choice research has been negatively impacted by common problems with educational research (comparing similar populations, confronting problems of scaling up, etc.) as well as the corrupting influence of advocacy. Too much of what is presented in the media as “research” is actually advocacy masquerading as scholarship. Pro-school choice think tanks have been very aggressive and depended on a non-critical media and public, both of which are highly susceptible to press-release and both-sides journalism.

Ultimately, the school choice debate is a distraction from a sobering fact: the U.S. has failed public education by never completely committing to high-quality education for every child in the country regardless of their ZIP code.

There is no mystery to what constitutes a great school, high academic quality, or challenging education, but there is solid proof that almost no one in the U.S. has the political will to choose to guarantee that for every child so that no one has to hope an Invisible Hand might offer a few crumbs here and there.

See Also

The Zombie Politics of School Choice: A Reader


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