National School Choice Week, a pet project of big corporations and conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers, kicked off Monday with celebratory forums throughout the country. Billing itself as a social justice movement committed to “ensuring effective education options for every child,” “school choice” has actually become a deeply divisive wedge issue for the right. But the folks at School Choice Week would prefer that you didn’t know that.
On their website, you can find photographs and videos of shiny happy children of all races and ethnicities. And you’ll see that Bill Cosby is a major supporter. And since he has a doctorate in education and has acted as a philanthropist on behalf of many African-American schools, many will see his endorsement as an important mark of legitimacy.
But there are a few serious problems with the school choice movement. Though it attracts mainstream conservatives like Cosby, as well as Democrats like President Barack Obama, it is not, at its core, a bipartisan endeavor. Its most important backers are rightwing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and other groups supported by billionaire rightwing ideologues like the Koch brothers. They want to dismantle public education altogether and run schools as businesses, judged as “successes” or “failures” based on abstract data taken from high-stakes standardized test scores.
Access to opportunity is replaced with demands for universal “excellence” and “achievement,” in which teachers are punished for student “failure.” This pits parents against teachers, and it ultimately sidelines already marginalized children of immigrant families, poor children and/or children of color.
But you won’t see any of these shortcomings acknowledged in the video below:
To counter some of the misinformation School Choice Week organizers are disseminating to the public, I give you the five biggest lies you’ve heard about school choice:
1. It’s not about racial justice and equal opportunity.
In fact, school choice often makes inequality worse. But because public schools have not solved the achievement gap between white and black children in America, proponents of school choice dishonestly take up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement.
It isn’t that all aspects of school choice are objectionable to educators. Dennis van Roekel, president of America’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), acknowledges that school choice can benefit underserved populations some of the time. He says magnet schools – that is, schools in poor neighborhoods that provide a range of diverse classes for students not usually offered in public schools – are a good model for school choice. Such schools draw students who are attracted, for example, to advanced arts or sciences programs. The extra funding ensures that magnet schools, located in poor areas, become a district’s best schools. Van Roekel sees this as a worthy innovation that furthers equity, and says the NEA supports it.
His organization also supports teacher-led schools that empower teachers to administer schools and tailor them to the needs of students. He even says that some charter schools – that is, independent public schools designed to fill a specific community’s needs and are less regulated that other public schools – are good ones. He thinks there is room in public education for some charter schools.
But he doesn’t think they’re a viable answer to inequality everywhere. He cites a 2009 Stanford study, which found that only 17 percent of charter schools provided better education than regular public schools. And that, he says, is not acceptable to the NEA because “it ought to be better than that. It needs to be 100 percent.”
He is not as open to school vouchers, which divert public money away from public schools and allot it to parents to assist with private school tuition. Ultimately, Van Roekel says, vouchers disproportionately serve the wealthy. Less funding for public schools is just not good for poor communities, which usually have to rely on the public system.
Karey Hardwood, an ethics professor at NC State University and public school advocate, is also concerned about how school choice affects poor children. She is an activist with Great Schools in Wake, an organization that formed in 2009 to oppose a school choice platform pushed by a newly elected right-wing school board in Wake County, North Carolina. The state chapter of the NAACP has also opposed school choice, arguing that it will lead to the re-segregation of schools in Raleigh, North Carolina and its surrounding suburbs.
Harwood asks: “When they talk about choice, whose choices are they referring to? Are the children of people who are savvy enough to get out of the public schools the only children who are worth educating in our society? What happens to the children who don't get out? It seems the [people behind School Choice Week] knowingly embrace the idea of creating a second tier of schools for those American citizens who don't or can't ‘choose’ – and they are perfectly okay with a divided society of winners and losers.”
Carrie Rogers, a Wake County parent and former teacher who describes herself as a moderate Republican, agrees. She says school choice largely benefits well-educated middle and upper-middle class students. Rogers notes that she devoted 12 hours per week for six months to investigating her children’s options, and says that working class parents who work multiple jobs do not have that kind of free time on their hands. She adds that poor children, who most need access to excellent schools, will end up in the worst schools as a result. Ultimately, she says, “I think ‘school choice movement’ is a misnomer. I view it a movement based on prejudice, xenophobia and racism. The idea sounds good, and we all hate the idea of bussing our children [to outside communities to enforce Wake County’s former economic diversity policy]. But if you don’t want your child bussed, don’t break the entire system. We’ve allowed a very small group of vocal opponents to ruin our schools for everybody.”
Brian Jones is a New York City teacher and activist with the Grassroots Education Movement, an organization that supports progressive school policies. He says, “I think [racial and economic] segregation is the sinister subtext [of school choice]. Very wealthy benefactors are going into Harlem and promoting segregated schools as a solution. But the Civil Rights movement saw racial justice as bound up with economic justice. The school choice movement claims to be about racial justice, but distances itself from questions of economic justice. Under the banner of ‘school excellence,’ school choice advocates would like for us to forget about equity.”
John Wilson, former president of the NEA who now resides in Raleigh, says it is a “travesty that we are allowing our schools to be re-segregated” in the name of social justice. “If you really want to help poor children,” he insists, you have to desegregate your schools.” A native of the South who spends half of his time in North Carolina, Wilson says his background “absolutely informs” his perspective on school choice. When Southern schools were forced to integrate, he remembers, educators ultimately realized that integration was the best way to promote equity.” In other words, it brought home the lesson of Brown v. Board of Education – the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating school integration on the basis that segregated “separate but equal” schooling always privileged white students and could never be equal in practice.
2. It’s not about making public education stronger
The school choice movement promotes the dismantling of public education at every turn.
Van Roekel says that, for school choice to benefit public education, it must prioritize the needs of students. The problem is that this rarely happens. Instead, school choice is too often a mechanism of privatizing education and defunding public schools. When funds are diverted away from public schools, they are not strengthened, but starved. Teachers end up with so many students per classroom that it is impossible to give every child the attention she needs. Van Roekel says attempts to profit on the back of public education are unacceptable.
Wilson tells AlterNet that he thinks School Choice Week’s primary aim is to promote vouchers at the expense of public education. He says, “Private schools undermine the public school system,” and adds that no evidence suggests they are better than public schools. School Choice Week, he says, is promoting the demise of public education under the guise “excellence.” In the end, he says, they are “doing a disservice to children.”
Judith Armfield, who retired from the Wake County Public School System in 2004 after 31 years in teaching, agrees. She opposes the privatization of education because she thinks diversity is an important aspect of learning. According to Armfield, private schools “encourage withdrawal from reality” such that “students…are not as well-prepared for success in a diverse world. My boys began their school experience in private school in [segregationist George Wallace’s] Alabama, but we realized that they were being sheltered and put them in public school classrooms” where they had access to better school curriculum and learned to coexist with people different from themselves.
Harwood is also concerned about the privatization trend, noting, “One of the most problematic aspects [of it] is the idea of ‘choice’ itself. What the [people behind School Choice Week] seem to be saying…is that, rather than strengthen a weakened public school system because we believe in public schools as the foundation of a democratic society, the solution is to abandon public schools altogether, let them deteriorate, and replace them with alternative private schools and charter schools that can claim they cater to every possible parental preference.”
Harwood has seen this happen firsthand in North Carolina, where wealthy conservatives like Art Pope and the Koch brothers are promoting the privatization of education as a way of shoring up profits for themselves and other large corporations. She says applying this business model to education results in a system that “pits schools against each other in a competitive market…, [and] that's really not the best way to go about improving school quality. In fact, it's very counterproductive.” Rogers agrees, saying it creates a system in which “there has to be a school that’s the worst school in the country. We have decided [under the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act], that, if you’re the worst school in the country, we will shut you down. We’re not looking at whether that school is working” within the confines of limitations like large class size or high homeless rates.
Jones tells AlterNet that the same kinds of corporate interests that promote school choice in North Carolina are at work in New York City. He says, “We have a lot of Wall Street Money involved. We recently learned that Goldman Sachs was backing [one prominent charter school in New York City]. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund executives run that school. They seem to believe that you don’t need to know anything about education in order to run schools.” And this is the sort of hubris, Van Roekel and Wilson say, that is unlikely to benefit students.
3. It’s not about supporting teachers.
School choice often results in a punitive atmosphere for teachers. Why? Well, parents choose schools for their children at least partly on the basis of high-stakes standardized test scores. And the quality of teachers is usually reduced to a zero-sum question about how well a school’s students score on standardized tests. As a result, teachers are blamed when students score poorly on standardized tests, and advocates for school choice use the numbers – and the bogeyman of bad teachers – to advance their cause.
Radical right-wing bigwigs like Rush Limbaugh have also contributed to the demonization of teachers, casting them as “socialists” working to “indoctrinate” students. And though the scapegoating of teachers gets particularly ugly on the far right, anger at teachers is not reduced to the fringe elements of the conservative movement. For example, Jones notes that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that up to half of the city’s school teachers may be so incompetent they have to be replaced.
But why teachers? Wilson thinks the school choice movement is particularly hostile to teachers because the NEA is a strong opponent of school vouchers. Jones agrees, telling AlterNet he sees the proliferation of non-union charter schools in New York City as a tool to punish public school teachers. Why? Well, precisely because charter schools are usually non-union schools. In New York, he says, non-union charter schools are promoted because they act as “a significant wedge against the teachers’ union.” He says the rise in numbers of non-union teachers leads to the union being pitted against workers who have fewer bargaining rights and worker protections. And it becomes harder for teachers to organize effectively against vouchers.
Rogers agrees that the impetus behind the school choice movement’s call for teacher accountability is to punish teachers, not make them better. She notes, “teacher accountability is [a way of scapegoating teachers in spite of the fact that] problems in education are usually systemic – and not the fault of individual teachers. It hurts morale,” she says, and is counterproductive given that low morale is rarely conducive to outstanding job performance. “When people say teachers are overpaid or should be fired,” she says, “I just don’t believe that… If a school is doing really badly, it’s not because the teachers, administrators and support staff have all gotten together and said, ‘Who cares?’ Educators do try to make it work. We become educators because we are committed to the personal and academic growth of our students.”
Rather than blaming teachers, my sources all suggest that systemic factors like poverty and class size need to be taken into account in assessing school performance. Rogers thinks high teacher-to-student ratio is a major reason why some schools perform poorly, and Jones agrees. He adds, “When you have growing numbers of homeless students, increasing economic inequality and waves of budget cuts year after year,” it is unrealistic to blame failure on the teachers. “It’s nonsensical that they would promote this demand for excellence” even though they have presided over the depletion of public school resources. At the end of the day, teacher accountability is usually bound up with the push for privatization, and it rarely improves teacher performance.
4. It’s not about giving parents what they want.
To the contrary, many of my sources point out, school choice seduces parents by making hollow promises they think will resonate with parents. Jones says many parents are drawn to the idea of school choice – and the accompanying promotion of private education – at first. Plus, the inflammatory rhetoric that school choice advocates use against teachers helps the school choice movement divide and conquer teachers and parents. In other words, it pits parents and teachers against one another, and as a result, the quality of public education suffers.
At first, Jones says, “Historically underserved groups may see it as a solution to inequality. I can understand why some parents buy into it at first. If you feel like your child’s education has been neglected or if you’re a member of a group that has historically been underserved, you feel like finally someone is paying attention. But, in fact, school choice often disempowers parents.” It restricts their level of involvement, for example, in Parent/Teacher Associations. They are afforded less influence over school policy. A bit ironically, then, school “choice” may actually result in less choice for parents.
Jones says, “What we’ve seen over and over again is that many of the parents [who initially pushed for school choice] will switch to our side after they experience it. They realize that school choice does not promote equality or benefit them. Not to mention, what happens when parents have no good choices available?” In any case, he says, “as school choice plays out, parents begin to see that it crushes genuine learning. For example, it reduces literature to a main idea and education to a chore [that is organized around high-stakes standardized multiple choice tests]. The real lesson is that school is not a place where you investigate your own questions, but where you learn to answer someone else’s questions the way they want you to answer them. It makes education a chore rather than a joy.”
Rogers sees may parents becoming disillusioned with school choice in the Raleigh area as well. She says many parents are overwhelmed with complicated school application forms and the imperative to choose the best schools for their children. They must also make ample time to visit schools holding open houses where teachers and administrators and charged with “selling” their schools. Sometimes, she says, the parents who get burnt out are the very same people who welcomed school choice at the beginning. In practice, she says, they find the process taxing and stressful, recognizing that they may be unqualified to determine which school is best for a specific child.
Jones thinks that the alienation of parents and teachers means that school choice advocates are “in danger of creating a very strong alliance of teachers and parents to challenge their agenda.” Jones says one example of this is New York City Public School Parents, an organization through which parents advocate for more parental involvement in schools by way of strengthening public education. Organizations like this facilitate cooperation between parents and teachers, who often begin to side with teachers’ unions opposing vouchers. When that happens, it’s a significant boon to public education.
5. It’s not a bipartisan, secular movement.
School choice is a deeply partisan fight, and one which many – but not all – private church schools have taken up. Don’t get me wrong. This myth, like any successful political narrative, is at least partly true. Moderate conservatives and a range of liberals often lend their support, obscuring the rightwing ideology behind the movement.
So, yes, choice does have a modicum of bipartisan support across party lines. Rogers notes, “I know several parents who are very liberal and
who are pro-school choice… As someone who is kind of hard to pin down politically, I shy away from putting a political label on this, but I know it isn’t only about the Tea Party. There are a lot of very liberal people out there who are in favor of school choice.”
Rogers believes this is due, at least in Wake County, to the pervasiveness of racism across party lines. She stresses that “Republicans are not the only racists. Of course liberals are theoretically less likely to embrace school choice and support public initiatives in education, but then they often get down to it, and go, ‘oh wait, we have to send our kids to schools with the black kids or the poor kids?’” She says she knows many liberals who fail to live up to their high-minded ideals when it comes to school choice.
Though she argues that this is largely motivated by racism, Rogers thinks that some parents – on both the right and left – may not understand that the consequences of school choice – and that includes negative consequences like re-segregation and greater inequality. She says, “Parenthood gives you a very narrow focus… We want to protect our children. If we feel that a school is not doing what it needs to do, we’ll fight to send our children to another one. These parents sometimes don’t realize that what they’re advocating is not fair to everybody.”
Because of this, school choice maintains enough bipartisan support to appeal believably to bipartisanship. Jones points out that President Obama has consistently supported school choice despite a campaign platform that involved overturning No Child Left Behind. In fact, he says, “Obama applauded the mass firing of teachers in a poor school district in Rhode Island that was deemed a failure. And he supports the proliferation of charter schools” that has so negatively affected teachers unions’ in places like New York.
This is because school choice is, at its heart, about the kind of “bootstraps” ideology in which some people win and some lose, as Harwood pointed out. School Choice Week is backed by many private schools associated with the Christian Right, which have an interest in steering children away from public schools that they believe will “indoctrinate” their children with liberal ideology, tolerance for LGBT people, and instruction that recognizes evolution as a viable scientific concept. Because Fox News caters to this audience, coverage of school choice is most prominent there. As a result, religious institutions often favor vouchers as a way of promoting their own political agenda.
Perhaps even more significant are the corporate sponsors of School Choice Week. Morna McDermott of the Baltimore Education Reform Examiner writes that corporate backers, perhaps more than private schools, are interested in the complete dismantling of education. She says “corporate-led [conservative] reformers must have gotten wind that there were billions of dollars to be made by funneling federal dollars through these schools” because they “have since taken the lead to legislate policies to their benefit.” And, she points out, most of the organizations affiliated with School Choice Week “have direct connections with, or strong ties to, a right-wing agenda to privatize many American institutions including education.”
The most powerful, she says, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which brags of helping introduce more than one thousand pieces of school choice-related legislation to legislators every year. She explains, “ALEC describes itself as a ‘unique,’ ‘unparalleled’ and ‘unmatched’ organization,” and adds, “Their largest contributing members include the tobacco industry and big oil.”
But ALEC isn’t the only right-wing supporter of School Choice Week. Conservative organizations like the Goldwater Institute, New Jersey Tea Party Caucus, Heritage Foundation, Alliance for School Choice, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, Reason Institute, and many other right-wing groups are also behind this week’s school choice celebrations. Despite some liberal support, its primary backers are deeply conservative activists whose goal is to dissolve public education in the United States. That’s why school choice bipartisanship is a myth – that is, its advocates use their few liberal supporters to obscure the real political base.
It is crucial to debunk these kinds of myths because, as Harwood says, “School choice is not the panacea that [its supporters are] making it out to be. There is plenty of room for creativity and innovation within public schools. There should be plenty of motivation to strive for excellence. To rely always on this free market ideology as the solution to problems in the public schools [signals] a very limited way of thinking. When students are healthy and well-fed and schools are well-resourced, the results in American schools are excellent. Poverty and extreme social inequality are the real” barriers to adequate education. And as all of my sources confirm, school choice is an unsuitable one-size-fits-all solution that often marginalizes poor children and children of color rather than fixing their schools.
Public education itself is not the lost cause that advocates of School Choice Week would have you believe. The effects of inequality undoubtedly undermine the progress many marginalized students, but this does not require that we do away entirely with public schools. A woman from an Eastern European immigrant family recently told me that, until recently, she thought the United States had largely figured out how to do education well. But causes like school choice now undermine progress our education system has achieved, and that is why its propaganda has to be disputed.