School Choice is a Lie It Does Not Mean More Options It Means Less by Author Steven Singer

By Steven Singer | Published on gadflyonthewallblog | 2017 | Steven Singer is a contributing author to United We Stand, available on Amazon ($14.95) | Author of the forthcoming book: The Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform (Garn Press, Fall 2017) | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Steven Singer

“A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” – Joseph Goebbels

Neoliberals and right-wingers are very good at naming things.

Doing so allows them to frame the narrative, and control the debate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with “school choice” – a term that has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with privatization.

It literally means taking public educational institutions and turning them over to private companies for management and profit.

A FAKE DIFFERENCE AND A BIG DIFFERENCE

There are two main types: charter and voucher schools.

Charter schools are run by private interests but paid for exclusively by tax dollars. Voucher schools are run by private businesses and paid for at least in part by tax dollars.

Certainly each state has different laws and different legal definitions of these terms so there is some variability of what these schools are in practice. However, the general description holds in most cases. Voucher schools are privately run at (at least partial) public expense. Charter schools are privately run but pretend to be public. In both cases, they’re private – no matter what their lobbyists or marketing campaigns say to the contrary.

For instance, some charter schools claim to be run by duly elected school boards just like public schools. Yet the elected body is a proxy that gives over all management decisions to an appointed private board of company officers and a CEO. That’s not really the same thing as what you get at public schools. It’s a way of claiming that you’re the same without actually being it.

Likewise, voucher schools are subject to almost no regulations on how they spend their money – even the portion made up by tax dollars – but charter schools are subject to more state and federal oversight. This is why voucher schools can violate the separation of church and state – teaching creationism as fact – while charter schools cannot.

Yet, in practice, state and federal laws often allow charters much more flexibility than public schools and the state and federal government rarely checks up on themto see if they’re following the regulations. In fact, in many states, auditors are not even allowed to check up on charter school compliance unless specific complaints have been filed or long intervals of leaving them to their own devices have passed. So charters can also teach things like creationism as fact only more clandestinely.

In short, the differences between public and privatized schools is significant. Yet the difference between the two types of privatized education is more political and rhetorical than practical. Despite these facts, when we talk about privatized schools, we ignore the real distinctions and focus on the fake ones. We overlook the salient features and instead describe privatized schools as vehicles for choice.

They’re not.

FAKE CHOICE

School choice.

Got choice?

Parents should have the freedom to choose the school their children attend.

But using “choice” as the ultimate descriptor of what privatized schools are and what they offer is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie.

They are essentially private businesses existing for the sole purpose of making a profit.

Yes, parents choose if they want their children to enroll in these schools. But they also choose if their children enroll in the neighborhood public school.

Critics say the public school option is not a choice because there is only one public school district in a given neighborhood. Yet isn’t it the parents who decide the neighborhood where they live? In most cases, even the wealthiest district has rental properties where people can move to take advantage of an exceptional school system.

Certainly the quality of a school shouldn’t be determined by a zip code. But this is an argument for funding equity, for providing each district with the resources necessary to educate the children in their charge, not an argument for privatization.

In both cases, public and privatized schools, parents exercise choice. But the propagandists choose to call only one of them by that name.

And it is a misnomer.

Privatized schools – both charters and voucher schools – are under no obligation to accept all students who seek enrollment. Public schools are.

If a student lives in a public school’s service area, the district must accept that student. It doesn’t matter if educating that child will cost more than the average per pupil expenditure. It doesn’t matter if she is easy or difficult to educate, if she has a record of behavior or discipline problems, if she has special needs, if she has low test scores. The public school must accept her and give her the best education possible.

Privatized schools are legally allowed to be selective. They can deny enrollment based on whatever reasons they choose. Charter schools may have to be more careful about their explicit reasoning than voucher schools, but that’s just a restriction on what they say, not on what they do. The results are the same. If they want to deny your child entry because of her race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, whatever – they can. They just have to put something more creative down as the reason why.

Vouchers schools don’t even have to give you a reason at all.

And charters have a multitude of ways to avoid accountability. They can simply pretend to have conducted a lottery. Or they can include an onerous series of demands for enrollment such as expensive uniforms, school supplies and parental volunteering at the school, to discourage difficult students from applying.

Moreover, even if they let your child enroll, they can kick her out at any time if she proves to be too expensive or it appears she’ll make the school look bad. This is why every year charter schools send a stream of struggling students back to the public schools just before standardized test time – they don’t want the students low test scores to reflect badly on the school – yet they’ll use the fact that they enrolled difficult students at the beginning of the school year to “prove” they aren’t selective!

That’s not choice. It’s marketing.

At best, it’s not choice for the parents or students. It’s choice for the operators of privatized schools.

WALMARTIZATION OF SCHOOLS

Critics will argue that these problems are a feature of the limited scope of so-called school choice programs. If there were more of them, the market would self-correct and many of these irresponsible practices would disappear.

Yet such a belief shows a complete ignorance of how business works in America.

The free market has not lead to more choice. It has led to consolidation.

When WalMart moves into an area, it doesn’t help boost the local mom and pop stores. It devours them. It’s a principle best described as the bigger fish eat the little ones.

Our system is designed to hide this fact by preserving separate companies with individual names and brands but that are all owned and operated by huge conglomerates. For instance, there are multiple newspapers and TV stations across the country all owned by a handful of huge corporations. The same with airlines, banks, pharmaceuticals, you name it.

That’s not choice. It’s the illusion of choice. And if privatization were given free reign over our public schools, we should expect nothing less.

If all or most of our public schools became privatized, after a short time we would have a handful of huge corporations dominating the field with near monopoliesSchools would be large charter and voucher chains, possibly with a variety of names and brands marketed differently, but providing pretty much the same generic services. It would be the WalMartiztion of education.

That goal is not the expansion of choice. It is the reduction of it.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

And what of those critics who claim school choice isn’t about privatization but about allowing students to attend even neighboring public districts?

First, this is rarely what so-called “school choice” programs do. And there is a very good reason for that.

It’s a terrible idea.

Let’s say you have three districts in your part of the state, one of which is exceptional and the other two struggle. If we allow students at the struggling districts to attend the exceptional one, what happens? You have a mass exodus to the exceptional district while the other two close due to lack of funding.

Now what? The one exceptional district has to somehow service more students than it can house and somehow create an instant infrastructure to meet their needs. Even under the best of circumstances, this is impossible. It would take years to do so, and in the meantime all students – even those who originally lived in the exceptional school’s immediate coverage area – will suffer.

Moreover, it ignores the realities on the ground. Why were there two struggling districts and one exceptional one? Almost always this is because of the wealth disparity between the three districts. The exceptional district probably serviced wealthier children. They have fewer needs than poor children. They have books in the home, less food uncertainty, less exposure to violence, racism and trauma.

Yet the rich district has an overabundance of resources to meet whatever needs its students have. It can levy higher taxes and thus spend more per pupil than the other struggling districts.

So when you combine the three districts, you end up being unable to continue spending the same amount per pupil. You probably have to decrease that spending and thus all students receive fewer services. However, at the same time, student needs for services increase because now you’re also trying to educate the more impoverished and racially diverse students from the two previously struggling districts.

No, even this kind of school choice doesn’t improve the quality of education. It degrades it.

The only solution is to provide each district with the funding necessary to meet students’ needs – whatever they are. That is the only way to increase the quality of education – not playing musical chairs with where students physically go to school.

SCHOOL CHOICE IS A LIE

At every level, so-called “school choice” is a lie.

It’s about preserving the status quo for the wealthy while providing substandard services for the poor and middle class.

It’s a power grab by the business community to profitize public funds set aside to educate children.

And perhaps the easiest way to combat it is the simplest: stop calling it school choice.

Call it what it is – school privatization.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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