The False Options of School Choice

 

School choice is basically the idea that Walmart shoppers know more about public education than teachers do. Put parents in a big box of buyer options, the argument goes, and they’ll follow the fluorescent light of consumer desire right to the Tickle-Me Elmo score of educational excellence. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep track because the justifications for ditching traditional public schools flit around a bit. There’s the untie-the-market’s-invisible-hand idea, the parents-know-best idea, and, of course, the giving-teachers-unions-the-middle-finger-would-feel-so-good idea.

Regardless of the digits and dabs manipulating the choice argument, it’s all premised on the dubious notion of systemic public school failure. To listen to some people, public schools stink on ice. Period. If that’s the premise then there’s nothing to be lost by blowing up these failure factories. If all public schools do is suck up property taxes and turn out illiterates who get owned by the Latvians on international test comparisons, let’s just tear ‘em down and start over. Among the most vociferous of these sort of critics is Betsey Devos, secretary of the Department of Education, who thinks public schools are a “dead end.”

Not to worry, though. Public schools may be spinning ever faster around the scholarly sink hole, but the Fed-Ed poo-bah has the solution: School choice. Now, school choice can actually mean a lot of things. The mild version is public charters. These are boutique public schools within public schools, distinguishable from the standard article primarily by greater regulatory freedom and a lot of Teach for America, Thousand-Points-of-Light, let’s-really-teach-these-kids-something earnestness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the full Monty version of choice is a voucher system. This really does mean blowing up public education as we know it and it’s the option that Devos seems likely to champion as the nation’s top education official. In a pure voucher system there is no such thing as a public school. Parents get a coupon—a voucher—that they can cash in at any vendor doing business in the big mall of educational service provision. Competition for the cash those coupons represent will be fierce, and as everybody knows the only way to win in the Darwinian world of an unregulated market is by providing a better product with superior customer service. I mean, just look at what it did for air travel.

There’s really only two problems with Devos’ diagnosis of public education’s ills and her favored policy fix. First, she appears to know shockingly little about public schools and how they are run and evaluated. If you think that’s harsh, take a gander at her ignominious Senate hearing performance for yourself.  Second, she seems to know even less about the iffy results from the clinical trials of schools that have swallowed the magic market medicine she’s prescribing.

Here’s a news flash: the nation’s public education system isn’t failing, at least not any more than usual. Chicken Littles have been yipping and yowling about the deficiencies of schools at least since the Rooskies launched Sputnik. Way back in the fifties the Reds put an aluminum beach ball in orbit that could say “bing,”  a big technological accomplishment for the time. More to the point, public schools were faulted for not producing boffins with enough of the right stuff to make American satellites that said “bing.” Rather than buckling down and putting Ivan in his place, the coddled capitalist teens populating sub-par junior highs were apparently using their slide rules to flick boogers at each other. Don’t try to follow the logic here, it was a weird time.

Public schools have been routinely bashed pretty much ever since. They got flogged for the ills of the hippy-dippy sixties and the druggy seventies, with everything from forced busing and desegregation to whole language learning and the new math denounced for undermining the Republic. In the eighties the Reagan administration got the fantods and issued a scary tome called A Nation At Risk, whose basic precis was that 7th graders had cashed in their slide rules for calculators but only to employ them as technologically superior booger flickers. The cry of public school failure went on into the nineties and the aughties as school choice became a real thing and places like Milwaukee started implementing honest-to-god voucher systems.

Now, there’s no doubt that bad public schools exist—as a journalist and as an academic I’ve witnessed some firsthand. But there is also a ton of pretty decent to truly outstanding public schools, and by my accounting these make up the strong majority of the public education system. Somehow that gets lost. Someone sees pictures of a struggling inner-city school or reads that Finnish high schoolers kicked Yankee ass in the latest International Nerd Olympiad and all the good stuff falls out of view. We’ve got to upend the system to save our future.

People of Devos’ ilk have spent decades saying public schools are so bad we need to institute a system of choice to make things better. Yet in doing so they not only are conveniently ignoring the fact that the big majority of public schools are doing just fine, they are even more conveniently blind-eyeing a very long list of studies showing that school choice variants at best are no better than public schools, and not uncommonly are actually worse.

I know a little about the mountain of research done on the efficacy of school choice because I spent the better part of a decade hanging off its north face trying to belay down to the base camp of rational policymaking. I wrote a dissertation, two books, and a bunch of scholarly and popular articles, talked to teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy wonks and policymakers, I testified before state legislatures, talked to teachers unions and parents groups, crunched numbers and dissected data. If you’re really bored you can find the Cliff’s Notes summary of my years of work analyzing school choice here. It’s all pretty dated by now, but here’s a New York Times article on the three most recent big studies on school choice. They all conclude choice programs are pretty much a flop as a general policy tool to improve academic performance.

I predict the latest studies will have about as much impact on the choice debate as my humble contributions did, which is to say not much at all. School choice advocacy is remarkably resistant to empirical evidence of its shortcomings and to the many successes of public education. I’m pretty convinced that’s because this debate is not about the performance of schools at all. That’s just cover and justification. All the hoo-hah and debate is really about what schools are for. Many (not all) advocates of choice are anti-public schools not because of their supposed failure to get the literacy and numeracy of the nation’s youth up to snuff, but because of their inclusive e pluribus unum social mission. They want schools that exclusively transmit their particular religious, social and political values, and not just the values that are broadly agreed on by the collective. If they can get that and epic SAT scores, great. Educational performance, though, is just the gravy. The real meat of the choice argument is really about ideology, and that can be consumed raw and satisfy with or without the condiments.

I also predict that public schools will not be severely wounded by the choice brigade, even though one of their own now occupies the nation’s top educational office. The biggest problem advocates of choice have is that the vast majority of Americans went to a public school, live near a public school, know a public school teacher, and interact with public school students. And while some of them, or more accurately us, are indeed in trouble—sometimes big trouble—most of us and our public schools are doing at least fair to middling. And we’re probably not going to give that up for the dubious promise of getting the option to pick out our very own Tickle-Me Elmo education miracle. When push comes to shove, I’m betting that’s a choice we’re just not going to make.

 

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