“National School Choice Week” Gives You No Choice At All

By Yohuru Williams | Twitter: @YohuruWilliams | Originally published on The Progressive | January 23, 2018 | Republished with permission | View original Article | Photo: Thomas Hobson, a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London | Syndication made possible through Patreon

By Yohuru Williams

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” observed President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of American Education Week in 1938. “The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Roosevelt’s words echo powerfully in our contemporary moment, eighty years later, as champions of “education reform” are staging their annual “National School Choice Week.”

But the pro-corporate, conservative-backed effort to privatize public education, a pillar of our democracy, under the guise of offering parents “choice” might more aptly be called a “Hobson’s choice.”

Like many of the proponents of corporate education reform, 16th-century Englishman Thomas Hobson was a slick marketer and businessman adept in the art of the illusion. He enticed would-be consumers into his livery in Cambridge with an impressive inventory of horses from which to choose. But once inside, Hobson directed clients to select the horse in the stall closest to the stable door—the predetermined horse was the only real choice.

This in an accurate portrait of National School Choice Week, facilitated and funded by a coalition of education reform groups including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which once boasted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a board member.

This designated week each year is cast as a celebration of opportunity in public education, but is  largely based on a grand façade. One need only to peruse the National School Choice Week website to see it.

Lurking beneath all the hoopla of greater parental involvement and other noble ends, the primary concern of its founders is to drive business toward the horse nearest the door, for-profit charter schools. And don’t be fooled: the term “public charter schools” is a calculated attempt to deflect attention away from the myriad ways in which such schools ultimately siphon resources away from and undermine public education.

Suspension rates illustrate the sleight-of-hand methods employed by the privatizers. While the National School Choice Week website proudly claims that charters must accept all students, it does not comment on how long.

An underreported national disgrace, charter schools have some of the highest suspension rates in the country, and continue to target black and brown students for suspension—by some estimates at a rate four times that of white students. It is one of the ways in which charter schools manipulate performance on high-stakes tests by cherry-picking the best students—although even this has not led to the high performance outcomes proponents promise.

This is not a blanket indictment on all charter schools but a call for public vigilance. We must look past the artful allusions made by Secretary Devos, who compared school choice to food trucks and innovations in public transportation. In her problematic framing of the issue, choice is the great equalizer. As she noted in an address at the Brookings Institute last March, “Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice.”

But while Uber and Lyft may have delivered more “choice” to commuters in the market, this disruptive innovation has come at a dear cost (driving down wages for drivers and jeopardizing women’s safety, for a start). More importantly, this is a rotten analogy for those without the means to benefit.

After all, poor people take the bus.

The same is true of public schools, where closings, hyper-segregation, and rabid suspensions hurt the most vulnerable—poor people and communities of color.

This has not stopped the proponents of choice from continuing to peddle their 21st century version of Hobson’s livery trick. Much of the “what you can do” section of the National School Choice Week website, for instance, is an unsubtle attack on traditional public schools. It advises parents to interrogate principals, check test scores, write elected officials, and take to social media to support “choice”—which invariably means charters and voucher programs in which parents can redeem their share of school funding at a school of their choosing.

None of these are bad suggestions in and of themselves. But they are not being employed here to advocate for better schools and educational outcomes. Instead, they are thinly veiled tactics to undermine public schools for the sake of profit.

It would be different, of course, if the message were advanced by the Network for Public Education and other grassroots organizations committed to supporting public schools. They call for a deeper investment in public education, including universal pre-K, greater support for English Language Learners, increased resources for special education, and more professional development and better pay for teachers.

Few of these considerations, however, ever make it into the so-called reformers conversations about education. For this reason, we must choose public schools that serve the needs of all communities rather than those in thinly disguised horse stalls of privilege and inequality. Such schools seek to serve students of all abilities in the cause of, as Roosevelt observed, bettering us and furthering our democracy, not dismantling it.

Yohuru Williams is an education activist and professor of history and dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He is on the board of directors for the Network for Public Education.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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