How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue


Conservatives champion it. Liberals loathe it. But both sides have distorted the cause, and students are paying the price.


Larry Downing/Reuters

Bill Cosby and Dick Morris presumably disagree about most things, so it's instructive to note that both have officially endorsed "School Choice Week," which began yesterday with a series of rallies and events around the country celebrating the idea of parents being able to decide where their children go to school. Indeed, school choice seems like such an obviously good idea that the most interesting thing about School Choice Week is why it exists at all.

That school choice is valuable is beyond dispute. That's why there's a multi-billion dollar private school industry serving millions of students. And it's why there is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market. While some parents pay school tuition directly, many more pay it through their monthly mortgage and property tax bills. Anyone who has deliberately purchased a home in a "good" school district is, by definition, a beneficiary and supporter of school choice.

Because school choice is so dependant on financial means, students from well-off families are much more likely to attend schools that have both high overall levels of quality and are tailored to their specific educational needs. These are the same children who, studies have shown, also experience much more enriching educational environments outside of school than their less privileged peers. In combination, this goes a long way toward explaining the persistent educational achievement gap between rich and poor children that haunts American education.

At its best, the school choice movement is dedicated to leveling the educational playing field by giving more parents access to choices they can't afford in the free market. Who could object? Plenty of people, as it turns out. This disagreement is a major impediment to achieving education justice in America. School choice is a perfect example of a fundamentally sound public policy idea that has been corrupted by a combination of ideology and naivete.

The birth of the school choice movement is usually dated to the publication of Milton Friedman's 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education," in which he proposed:

... giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on "approved" educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an "approved" institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds.

Friedman, as we all know, was enormously influential in shaping conservative economic thought. But it took a long time for his educational ideas to become embedded on one side of partisan lines. In the early 1970s, liberal education activists openly promoted the idea giving poor students Friedman-like vouchers in order to help them escape dysfunctional urban school systems. 

But at the same time, the Republican party was in the midst of shifting toward a new brand of free-market, anti-government ideology. As Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform whose education planks were voucher-focused, school choice became an issue like abortion or gun control that people learn to be stridently for or against based on their larger party affiliation.

The fact that that the likely recipients of vouchers were either religious or non-unionized private schools made the divisions even more acute. For Republicans, vouchers were a way to be pro-God, pro-market and anti-labor all at the same time. This proved to be such a satisfying combination that many conservative politicians have never bothered to adopt any other discernible position on public education. Similarly, liberals could use vouchers to support their union allies and fight for the separation of church and state.

Such deep political trenches made school choice legislation difficult to pass. To this day, vouchers are only available to a small handful of students. Then, a decade after Reagan's election, school choice manifested in a new idea that was designed to address many of the obvious weaknesses of vouchers: charter schools. First conceived in Minnesota and given a crucial "New Democrat" endorsement by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charters have since expanded across the nation.

Charter schools are public schools accountable through a contract or "charter" to public bodies. If they fail to meet the terms of the charter, they can be quickly shut down. Like regular public schools, charters are accountable for student scores on standardized tests under laws like the federal No Child Left Behind act. Unlike private schools that pick and choose their pupils, charters are open to all students and allocate scarce openings via lotteries. The large majority of charters are run by non-profit organizations and thus harder to charge with profit-taking at the expense of public schools.

Yet charters, too, have become charged with ideology. Efforts to create them have often met with staunch resistance from teachers unions and other organizations representing traditional public schools. Many liberals see charters as little more than vouchers in sheep's clothing, another plot to privatize and undermine public education. So charters, too, have been slow to spread in many states.

That's why this week is School Choice Week. While school choice has steadily advanced over the last two decades, primarily through the expansion of charters, the fact remains that the large majority of middle- and lower-income parents don't have any meaningful choices for their children. They're stuck with local schools that too often range from inadequate to shockingly bad, and they can't afford to buy access to better ones.

Changing this will require a lot more in the way of discipline, good faith, and smart thinking on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Many conservatives have proved more interested in using vouchers as a political club than actually making them work on behalf of students. Students participating in the longest-lived and most well-studied voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, score no better on standardized tests than similar students who attended regular public schools.

Indeed, vouchers have become so tainted in discussion and practice that many conservatives now favor re-branded voucher programs that work through the tax code: Instead of getting a voucher for X amount of money to attend a private school, you get a "tuition tax credit" for X amount of money spent to attend a private school. A variation on the program was created in Arizona granting taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for "donations" to private schools. This soon spawned a corrupt system of log-rolling wherein private school parents gave donations to schools on behalf of each other's children.

The legislation, moreover, required that donations be funneled through "non-profit" middleman organizations run by, incredibly, the very same state legislators who wrote the legislation in the first place. These selfless public servants then skimmed off some of the money to lease luxury cars for themselves, give jobs to relatives, and rent space from for-profit corporations they owned. Making free government money available with no oversight turns out to have some drawbacks.

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Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. 

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