The reality of school choice
January 24, 2017 4 Comments
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.