Critical Questions Democrats Must Ask About School Choice
By Jeff Bryant
Campaign for America's Future
Left-leaning people everywhere recently got a hoot when the Texas Republican Party declared its opposition to the teaching of "Higher Order Thinking Skills," including "critical thinking skills," in public schools. Although a party spokesperson later back-peddled from that statement -- saying that including "critical thinking skills" in their declaration was a "mistake" -- there's little doubt that what these Republicans object to most is any sort of education that would challenge "fixed beliefs" and "authority."
Frankly, I don't see what Republicans are so worried about. Because when it comes to the subject of education, there's very little evidence that critical thinking is widespread these days, especially among the people who Republicans are supposed to worry about most -- Democrats.
Exhibit A in Democrats' inability to think critically about school policies is the recent rush by many in the party's leadership to embrace "parent trigger" laws. These are measures that allow a majority of 50 +1 parents to shut down a local school and provide an alternative that usually involves turning the school over to a private management company, instituting a privately operated charter, or getting vouchers to send children to private schools.
Among the first in line to endorse the parent trigger were the nation's mayors with prominent Democratic mayors "leading the charge." Rep. George Miller, the ranking member on the House committee controlling education legislation, has also praised the idea of the parent trigger. Numerous sources claim Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a fan. And rumors have swirled among Beltway types that the Obama campaign may be supportive.
Although parent trigger is acquiring these backers, Democrats need to understand these measures have strong backing among conservative Republicans, too. The corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has written model legislation enacting the parent trigger into law, and the conservative Heartland Institute has also drafted a version of this legislation.
Democrats couch their support of parent trigger laws in the lofty rhetoric of "a civil rights fight," as former California state senator Gloria Romero, who now runs that state's branch of Democrats for Education Reform, likes to put it. But regardless of whether backers of the trigger are Democrats or Republicans, the argument for this policy idea always boils down to "choice" and the belief that the responsibility of educating the nation's children needs to shift from community to family, and parents need to be treated more like consumers in the educational marketplace.
The idea of education policy driven solely by "choice" has been pushed by Republicans since the Reagan presidency. Once upon a time Democrats opposed school choice efforts, especially when these efforts were called"vouchers." But now, not so much. Why?
At a time when Democrats, including President Obama, are challenging the fixed beliefs Republican have about tax cuts, immigration, and healthcare, why would they not at least consider the following critical questions about the benefits and pitfalls of school choice?
What Could Be Wrong With Choice?
Of course the rhetoric of "school choice" sounds really good. What could be wrong with "choice?" Well, what's so right about it?
The Pied Piper of school choice is undoubtedly Jeb Bush, who recently declared "school choice is a catalytic converter for rising student achievement" in a speech delivered to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Like so many "signs of progress" that school "reform" enthusiasts like to crow about, Bush's recipe for "reform" is little more than a policy checklist that invariably includes instituting some form of school choice (Parent Trigger, charter schools, etc.), grading schools A-F, and evaluating teachers based on test scores.
Hardly ever do Bush and his followers connect this checklist of reforms to actual positive impacts on children -- because, in fact, they can't.
The results of Bush's program for public schools -- what he likes to refer to as "the Florida miracle" -- are very thin indeed. The "miracle" claim is derived primarily from the fact that Florida fourth graders, especially black fourth graders, out-gained the national average on the National Association of Education Progress in 2003 and 2005.
Impressive perhaps, until education researcher and testing expert Walter Haney looked into the situation. What Haney uncovered is that NAEP results for Florida fourth graders spiked because the population of fourth graders had been significantly changed.
It turns out that the scores for Florida fourth graders had improved mostly because the state suddenly started flunking large numbers of third graders, so low-achieving third graders were still in third grade when the fourth grade test was given. "With only the higher-achieving students taking the test, the scores jumped," according to an article in NEA Today.
"What’s more," the article continues, "the state flunked a much higher proportion of black than white students -- no wonder the achievement gap shrank."
Bearing out Haney's findings, sure enough, Florida's results on more recent NAEPs have shown that the gains Bush loves to cite have now stalled. So much for the "miracle."
Aside from Jeb Bush's Magical Mystery Tour, the longest running choice programs in America -- voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington DC -- have done little to improve student achievement. Regarding Milwaukee, Diane Ravitch has pointed out that:
In Milwaukee, after 21 years of vouchers, black students have among the lowest scores of any city tested, ranked at the bottom along with Detroit, Fresno, and Cleveland. Independent research has shown that the black and low-income students in Milwaukee’s voucher schools have the same low scores as the black students in the public schools. Their scores are about the same as those of poor black kids in the Deep South. Vouchers and competition did nothing for the children of Milwaukee.
The DC voucher program has had mixed results at best and likely only short term benefit to students.
Who Really Gets A "Choice?"
Nevertheless, many see choice as a panacea for underserved communities to escape the traditional public schools that are struggling with overcrowding and underfunding. Proponents of school choice maintain that it poses as a solution for families to "escape their zip codes" -- a reference to the strong tendency in this country for school quality to correlate with the relative wealth of the parents where the school is located.
But a recent article in The New York Times revealed that the benefits of school choice often accrue to the well-to-do.
The article reveals that in eight states, choice programs -- operating under the auspice of offering "scholarships" to needy students -- "have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children."
"Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools," the article notes, the programs have redirected some $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to supplement tuition paid by families who already send their kids to private and religious schools and pay administrative fees to new privately operated groups who manage the scholarships.
How many of these families are there who have the means and inclination to send their kids to private schools but will jump at the prospect of getting a tax credit or voucher to do it on the public dime? The truth is, no one knows.
But regardless of the form of school choice that policy makers choose -- vouchers, charters, parent trigger -- there's nothing in the essentials of choice that guarantee better outcomes for the least served families and every indicator that choice further enables better-off, more empowered families to game the system.
Furthermore, nothing about school choice, regardless of the form, guarantees parents get the kind of school quality they desire. Studies have shown that in a typical school choice program, the private school services that parents mostly desire -- small class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, individualized services -- will still be out of reach for most parents.
Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school -- as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents -- or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and no benefits of prestigious private schools.
What Kind Of Choice Do Democrats Want?
Many of the Democrats who come out for school choice have given very little thought as to what kind of school choice they want. Even Republican backers of school choice get surprised by the consequences of the policy they so ardently campaigned for.
In Louisiana, for instance, Republicans state representative Valarie Hodges retracted her support for Gov. Bobby Jindal's choice program after realizing the voucher money that enables the program could be applied to Muslim schools.
According to an article at Huffington Post, Hodges initially supported the governor's choice program -- probably, the most radical choice program in the country -- because "she mistakenly equated 'religious' with 'Christian,' and "Jindal's reform package allows state education funds to be used to send students to religious schools."
Left-leaning people may laugh about the irony of this -- a Republican advocating to transfer taxpayer funds to religious schools, but only if they teach her religion -- but the reality of this is that Democrats have put very little thought into how they want choice initiatives to actually turn out. So far, all the faith in school choice seems to be placed in the "magic of the market." But what if the market turns out to look like this list of religious schools that the Louisiana choice program is likely to fund. Are Democrats satisfied to have taxpayer money pay for that?
Another very real outcome that Democrats are not thinking of is how choice tends to increase segregation.
In fact, a recent review conducted by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) looked at the more than two-thirds of OECD countries that have increased school choice opportunities for parents in the last 25 years. The review found that "providing full parental school choice results in further student segregation between schools, by ability, socio-economic and ethnic background, and in greater inequities across education systems."
Writing at Next New Deal, blog site for the Roosevelt Institute, Amy Baral lays out a school choice landscape that includes inter-district, intra-district, and charter schools.
Regardless of the scenario, her conclusion is that "for poor families, immigrants, or students without stable homes, the amount of engagement and information required to make an informed decision is difficult to come by." And "middle-class parents are often better equipped" and "have the education, skills, and resources necessary to make an informed choice."
Choice is no substitute for where-with-all and cannot erase the advantages of inequality. In New York City, for instance, where mayor Bloomberg promotes aggressive charter takeovers of public schools, despite parent concerns, NYC resident Diane Ravitch recently noticed that City University of New York now offers courses in how to pick a charter school for your child. The cost? -- $75. Does that sound like a leveling factor to you?
Is "School Choice" Really The Only Choice?
For years, in an education landscape dominated by No Child Left Behind, Democrats and Republicans essentially "copied each other," as veteran edu-journalist Jay Mathews recently observed on his blog at The Washington Post.
But now, education policy has moved firmly into the post-NCLB era, and technocratic approaches, like NCLB spawn Race to the Top, are growing in increasing disfavor.
As always, in times of policy confusion, Republicans, with their deep-pocketed backers, are at the ready to fill the void with rhetoric about choice, competition, and markets. But Democrats don't have to meekly fall into line.
Instead they need to understand that whether you call choice initiatives vouchers, tax credits, or parent [whatever], the intent is always the same: to turn what was once a collaborative community endeavor -- the education of our next generation of citizens and leaders -- into a competitive scramble for "me first."
In fact, if you're a parent who has ever waited in line, during the wee hours of the morning, to be first in the door to enroll your three-year old in the most prestigious pre-school program in your community, then you already know what "school choice" is all about. It sucks. Now imagine having to do that, in some form, for every child, in every grade, until they finally graduate from high school. That is, indeed, the logical consequence of school choice. So Democrats need to think critically if that is what they really want.
Jeff is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. This article first appeared on the Campaign for America's Future blog.