The reality of school choice

Really enjoyed this policy-oriented take on Betsy DeVos and school choice from Sarah Carr in Slate.  School choice is far from the panacea DeVos and like make it out to be, but, properly regulated by government, there’s something to be said for it:

DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the notion became a rallying cry for conservatives—and some liberals—eager for states to embrace private school voucher programs, charter schools, or both. (Charter schools are public-private hybrids that typically must follow the reporting requirements of traditional public schools, including test scores and graduation rates. Voucher programs, by contrast, divert public funds—often in the form of “tuition vouchers”—to private schools that lack the regulations and transparency of public ones. Charter schools generally garner more bipartisan support than voucher programs, but several Democrats, particularly black ones, have endorsed vouchers as a potential boon for low-income families of color.)

Although DeVos’ exhortations on behalf of parental school choice are familiar to anyone who follows education reform, today she is wildly out of touch with a large part of the movement she purports to represent. The nearly 30-year history of school vouchers and charters in America has shown that parental choice—in the absence of government intervention—will not improve the quality of education in America and could inflict significant damage on the poorest communities. Indeed, even many of the staunchest early supporters of unchecked parental choice have moderated that stance over the past 15 years. By all appearances, DeVos hasn’t faced a similar moment of reckoning. [emphases mine]

Howard Fuller, an early and well-known supporter of school vouchers who founded Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, has long advocated for providing poor parents with more educational options. He still believes strongly in the power of school choice. Yet based on experience and evidence, he came to see the need for a greater governmental role—either direct or delegated—in determining which schools can open and which ones should close. “The free-market ideas upon which the voucher program was founded—that academically superior schools will thrive because parents will choose them over lousy schools—has not been borne out over the past two decades,” Fuller was paraphrased as saying in a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinelarticle

Yet unchecked free markets in education will inevitably put poor families in an even worse position. Numerous studies have shown that parents rely on word of mouth over other more objective and researched factors when selecting a school. That goes for parents of all income levels. But low-income parents are at a disadvantage because they often lack the time, wherewithal, and resources to thoroughly investigate school options for their kids, or access to some of the strongest schools (which may have complicated, time-consuming admissions processes). Some parents have less-than-stellar memories of their own, often subpar, educational experiences and may fear the traditional system as a result. That makes them especially vulnerable—although not uniquely so—to charismatic con men and women masquerading as educators: the Bernie Madoffs of the education space.

Some charter schools seem to have really figured things out, but on average, it is clear that vouchers and charters are not some amazing solution.  Remember, all those nations that outperform us on education are not doing it based on school choice.  Free markets are awesome where the conditions are right and they work.  Primary and secondary education are not that place (like health care, not coincidentally).  So, yes, I’m okay with a properly-regulated role for charters, but I have absolutely no use for this false free-market ideology of education.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to The reality of school choice

  1. Mika says:

    In a month we have to decide what language our daughter starts studying next year. There are about ten different languages to choose from but we have narrowed the options to two. 1) she’ll start to study English next year, then it’s obligatory to start to study Swedish at 7th grade and at 8th she can voluntarily start studying 3rd language. 2) next year (3rd grade) German, then 4th grade English, 7th grade Swedish and 8th grade voluntary 4th language.

    Even this decision is very hard to make, how do we know how she’ll manage 3 languages at 7th grade? I’m glad we don’t have to think about what school we should have chosen. It used to be so here in Finland that every kid went to the nearest school but nowadays more and more parents are trying to get their kids to a school that they think is somehow better than their nearest school. We never thought about it.

  2. Mika says:

    1) No! (I’m leaning towards 2…)
    2) Not right now, but I’ll get back to you.

    • Mika says:

      Now I’ve got something. First, in this working paper is a nice very short summary about Finnish school system and how to attend other schools (3.1. School system, p. 7-8).

      Then there is this

      free preview of the book: “Contrasting Dynamics in Education Politics of Extremes”. It’s chapter 2 “outlines the historical development of political dynamics in Chilean
      and Finnish basic education politics, summing up earlier research on education
      policy”. Mainly pages 36-39, historical development.

      And last there is this very recent article which provides more than anecdotal evidence about the phenomena:

      School Choice to Lower Secondary Schools and Mechanisms of Segregation in Urban Finland

      From the abstract: “Distinctive choices of language and selective classes are made predominantly by pupils from residential blocks with higher socioeconomic profiles. The role of urban segregation in school choice seems to be stronger than predicted. As mechanisms of educational distinction accompanied with grouping policies, choice leads to socioeconomic segregation across and within schools.”

      This is interesting from the discussion:

      “As shown in the analyses, the impact of language choice as a diversifier was almost as significant as that of the selective classes. The socially differentiating effect of choosing an additional language and using it as an exit-practice within the public education (see Reay, 2004) is a new discovery in the Finnish context.”

      We have never thought that we’d use the language choice as an exit-practice and it hasn’t come up with discussions with other parents either. It might be that our school is so good that there is no need for that but I’ve no idea about how good our school really is. Our daughter likes her teacher and classmates. She likes to go to school. That’s it.

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