The hidden downsides of school 'choice'

Vouchers can make integrated schools impossible

The argument for vouchers is hopelessly circular.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Eric Miller)

Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, turned in a hilariously inept performance at her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. One striking moment came when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) inadvertently revealed that DeVos had never even heard of the debate over measuring proficiency versus growth in student assessment — one of the most basic and constantly discussed issues in education policy.

But she did evince a great love for one education policy, at least: school choice. This refers to the idea of giving families vouchers so they can attend private charter or religious schools. On first blush, it sounds pretty reasonable — but like most such libertarian invocations, in this context "choice" also obscures a reduction in choice, in particular for integrated schools.

The basic argumentative move that so-called education reformers use is to present a voucher system as a way to increase choice, and then use parents' participation in that system as evidence that they are satisfied with their ability to choose. "Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents' ability to exercise educational choice for their children?" DeVos said in her opening statement. Then, when Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) asked about underperforming charter schools, she said: "When parents choose charter schools, they are doing so because they think it's a great choice for their children."

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Along with many other libertarian notions, like the "non-aggression principle," this is hopelessly circular. How do we increase choice? With vouchers. How do we know we have thereby increased choice? Because vouchers are being used.

Now, there may be a measure of choice present in the fact of a family having a menu of options for schools. But the fact of setting up a voucher system can itself foreclose options. Families might logically prefer a system where all public schools are equally good, so they can just send their kids to whichever one is closest and don't have to do a lot of tedious research trying to figure out which one is the best. Such people will experience a voucher system as a coercive pain in the neck.

More troubling, as Dana Goldstein points out, there is little evidence families are actually any good at figuring out which schools are best at educating their pupils. Some are taken in by schools with a large marketing budget, while others don't take the time and land their kids in terrible schools by accident.

Worst of all, there is evidence that vouchers increase school segregation. White parents, especially upper-income ones, prefer to have their children in schools where most of the students are similar, racially and in terms of class background. Rich white liberals might be fine with some moderate portion of middle-or upper-class minority students, but they will often organize frantically to prevent poor ones from getting in.

Of course, this is not just a problem with vouchers. Traditional school boards routinely segregate their schools as well. Back in the day, we attacked that problem with busing, which worked quite well but collapsed under right-wing assault. As a result, as of 2014 segregation levels have increased back to the levels of 1968.

Interestingly, an excellent Tampa Bay Times investigation demonstrated that re-segregation in one Florida county had no educational benefits — many poor black schools collapsed in quality, but there was no corresponding upward trend for the white schools. At least in terms of educational outcomes, a preference for segregated schools is to a large extent mere irrational prejudice.

At any rate, education policy is complicated, and vouchers might be made to work against segregation somehow. But fundamentally, there are unavoidable tradeoffs here. Poor minority parents' desire for schools equal in quality to those of rich whites must come at the expense of the preference for segregation among some rich white parents. Which one of these options is chosen is an unavoidable political choice.

The project of DeVos and the education "reformers" like her is to present one of the two options as the natural outcome of parents making free decisions — and not the raw exercise of political coercion that it is.

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