The current school choice reform climate centers on the application of private business values to the public education system. For a private business to be successful it must be better than its competitors and it must engage in ongoing improvement and innovation to win customers. This competition is the hallmark of efforts to privatize public education, if there are increased schooling options for parents then there will be increased competition amongst schools for students and all schools will improve to remain open. There has been a proliferation of private business values being applied to education, evidenced by the rapid increase of charter schools and small schools of choice, the fight for vouchers, teacher merit pay, and the overall negative sentiment/federal support for public schooling.
Charter schools were conceptualized in the 1990s as a way to test out new teaching and curriculum approaches on a small scale and without the constraints usually placed on public school classrooms. These schools use public funding but are privately operated. These schools do not adhere to the same rules or accountability measures as traditional public schools. Fast forward to the late 2000s, and these schools have popped up in many urban neighborhoods across the country as an alternative to failing public schools. Many of these schools are owned by private companies and receive additional funding from private/corporate businesses. These charter schools, like KIPP Academy and Success Academy, are able to offer special dance programs, travel, and they are able to pay their teachers a more competitive rate than public schools. States must approve the number of charter schools that are allowed to be opened, and many states have bought into neoliberal principles, supporting the idea that there needs to be competition amongst schools in order to best serve students and families.
Another policy that increases competition is voucher programs. Vouchers allow students to take their public dollars with them to a private or parochial school. These vouchers pay for all or some of their tuition at these schools. The U.S. secretary of education is a big supporter of vouchers and is attempting to increase the federal budget to fund these programs. Currently, traditional public schools are in competition with charter, parochial and private schools for students.
“In the 2017 White House’s spending proposal, hundreds of millions of the dollars would go toward charter-school and voucher initiatives, while another $1 billion in grants would encourage states to adopt school-choice policies.”- Wong 2017
So what’s the problem you may ask? I like that I can go to Sprint, or T-Mobile or Verizon to find the right phone plan for me. I like that I can shop at Zara or Forever21 or H&M to find a cute outfit. What’s so wrong with privatization and competition? Let me begin by saying nothing is inherently wrong with the idea of competition and choice. Families should be able to hold schools accountable and families should be able to avoid a failing school and choose the school that works best for their child.
However, choice and privatization are all based on the assumption that all families have an equal level of knowledge to pick the right school for their child and equal power to get their child into that school. That is not the case. Eduardo Bonilla Silva (2009) argues that “choice is based on the fallacy that racial groups have the same power in the American polity” (36). The idea of the rational actor who benefits from the power to choose assumes that all people have equal power to begin with.” He further argues that “because Whites have more power, their unfettered, so-called individual choices help reproduce a form of White supremacy in neighborhoods, schools, and in society in general,” (36). White and wealthy parents have more political and economic power, and can achieve better results for their children. In New York City, advantaged parents are more successful at advocating for their child, and at gaining admission to the best schools (Ravitch 2013).
It doesn’t stop there in the theoretical space. In practice, school choice has resulted in greater racial and income segregation between schools. Vouchers have not been proven to improve student outcomes and actually depress student outcomes in some states (Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak; Walters and Egalite, Mills and Wolf). What they are successful at is threatening the viability of local public schools as seats are lost and children leave the public school system and take their funding with them (Turner 2017). There is great variation in charter school outcomes, and on the whole, charter schools are no better than public schools (Bifulco and Ladd 2006, Bifulco, Ladd and Ross 2009). Charter schools and vouchers now make education a deregulated and largely for-profit institution. Private and parochial schools may be taking public student funding dollars to teach ideas and practices that are marginal, troubling, or not aligned with the American values put forth in public schools. Charter schools are being run my multi million dollar corporations, and being pit against struggling public schools. Public school is slowly being disinvested in and forced to do more with less, while education brands and companies profit.
Am I making a big deal about nothing?
If these alleged “options” are not helping, should we continue to disinvest in public schools?
What should choice within the public school system look like?
Don’t take it from me!
I’ve listed my References and some additional reading below. ***= short yet informative reads
Abdulkadiroglu, A., Pathak, P., and Christopher Walters. 2017. “Free to Choose: Can School Choice Reduce Student Achievement?” https://seii.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/SEII-Discussion-Paper-2017.04-Abdulkadiro%C4%9Flu-Pathak-Walters-1.pdf
Apple, Michael. 2001. “Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education. Comparative Education 27(4): 409–423.
— — — — — — — 2006. Educating the Right Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2009. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
Bifulco, R and Helen F. Ladd. 2006. Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
Bifulco, R and Helen F. Ladd. 2007. “School Choice, Racial Segregation, and Test-Score Gaps: Evidence from North Carolina’s Charter School Program.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 26(1): 31–56.
Chubb, John and Terry Moe. 1990. “An Institutional Perspective on Schools.” In Politics, Markets, and American Schools. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institute.
Cucchiara, Maia Bloomfield. 2013. Marketing Schools Marketing Cities. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Egalite, Anna J., Mills, Jonathan M., and Patrick J. Wolfe. 2017. “The Impact of Targeted School Vouchers on Racial Stratification in Louisiana Schools” Education and Urban Society 49(3): 271–296.
***Turner, Chris. 2017. The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers. http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/05/12/520111511/the-promise-and-peril-of-school-vouchers
Torche, Florencia. 2005. “Privatization Reform and Inequality of Educational Opportunity: The Case of Chile” Sociology of Education 78(4): 316–343.
***Wong, Alia. 2017. “Trump’s Education Budget Takes Aim at the Working Class” The Atlantic. Retrieved on June 1, 2017 at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/trumps-education-budget-takes-aim-at-the-working-class/527718/