This past week Republicans chose to confirm the least popular nominee in that man’s new cabinet, Betsy DeVos. A lot of ink has been spilled on the fact that DeVos, like her boss, is an incompetent with no real experience inside the system she’s been chosen to run for the next four years. Perhaps even more than her boss (who is at his base just a charlatan who saw an opportunity to fatten his pockets and stroke his ego), DeVos is known specifically as an ideologue who places her personal philosophy of “choice above all” before any kind of evidence that suggests a different educational policy might yield better results for the nation’s children. She’s a white evangelical culture warrior who uses the fig leaf of “school choice” to hide her larger goal of collapsing the wall between church and state in favor of her personal Christianism.
The argument in favor of school choice goes something like this: parents know what’s best for their children, and this inherent knowledge that comes with having offspring deserves respect when it comes to making educational decisions. Because we have a demonstrable gap between schools that serve students who perform well and schools that don’t, parents should have the right to choose where their children are educated regardless of their physical location in a district. If the district doesn’t have a school that’s satisfactory to the parent, then the government should provide a voucher or some other cost-saving measure to the parent so they can seek out an appropriate privately run school.
On the surface, this is a benign assertion of a parent’s rights to make decisions about their child’s welfare. It breaks down when you think about a few more confounding factors.
Let’s start with assumptions about the schools themselves and then we’ll examine assumptions about the parents.
Privately run schools fall into two broad categories: religious and secular. Within each of these categories there’s a wide range of quality. Some faith-based schools provide remarkably good educations to their students, some are mediocre, and some are bad; the same is true with secular schools. The only real difference between these categories is that in a religious school, students are typically educated in the tenets of the faith organization that sponsors the school (I say faith organization here because it’s important to always remember that no faith tradition, absent a top-down magisterial system, has a fully unified system of belief among all of its members). I’d argue that this detail of faith-based education is value neutral, although it is an avenue of cultural indoctrination and any faith system that has abusive beliefs at its core will inevitably replicate the potential for abuse in at least some of its students.
A feature of private school that cuts across religious and secular lines is the fact that these schools are governed by a body that doesn’t receive federal oversight. If you’re of a libertarian ideological bent you might think this is a net positive since guidelines at the federal level can’t possibly be tailored enough to the needs of specific local communities (I actually agree with the idea that control of schools belongs in local communities; it’s the reason I opposed the Opportunity School District amendment on the Georgia ballot last year). The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the overwhelming need for federal funding to make schools capable of meeting the educational needs of their neediest students. Typically, federal guidelines are broad enough to provide only a basic foundation on which to build more specific educational policy; as much as folks like to whinge about the Common Core, those standards are mostly nothing new in comparison to previous state sponsored standards (on a broad level, states tend to crib from each other when they design their academic standards anyway; English and math literacy needs are largely the same across the country, and science and social studies standards tend to be proxies for culture wars which leads to uniformity in contiguous regions with the same political party in control at the state level). This broadness makes it easy for school systems to comply so they can qualify for the funding that is essential to serving low socioeconomic status students and special needs students (these funds are provided under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, recently reauthorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, originally passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and renamed in 1990). This federal funding is necessary because the costs of educating students with special needs is exceptionally high, and low SES students necessarily live in poorer communities with lower revenue from property taxes (most local funding for education comes through property tax). Public schools can’t serve large parts of their populations effectively without that funding, and the standards for qualification of funding are not difficult to comply with.
Private schools don’t have access to this funding; instead they rely on tuition paid by families for individual children’s education needs. As you might imagine, this lack of federal funding forces private schools to be more exclusive; they’ll only accept students whose families can afford the operating costs, and who promise an acceptable return on investment (in education, that’s college ready graduates or, for less scrupulous schools, students who can be educated below the cost of their tuition and thus allow the school to turn a profit). For low SES students, this model suggests that vouchers would be a suitable answer (in theory you just turn the federal funding for that student over to the family so they can put it towards whatever school they want their child to attend). I don’t like this solution because it pulls funding from public schools that are already strapped for cash, which reduces the quality of education for students who remain in the public school (larger pools of money can be invested in durable materials and staff that serve more students at a lower cost over time; shrinking the funding of a school past a certain point leads to lost jobs, higher student to teacher ratios, and overall poorer service). Also, I don’t trust oversight of private schools to be stringent enough to keep them from cutting corners to pocket money instead of investing it in the children they serve. Government regulations are a good thing.
That only touches on low SES students though. Students with special needs are significantly more complex cases, and the reality is that private schools don’t have an obligation to serve those students. In the most extreme cases they will not be able to offer a positive return on investment; the mission in educating these students is almost always centered as a public service. Within any given student’s limitations, educators typically want to see that student achieve their maximum potential because higher met potential leads to a more fulfilling life. We sink a lot of resources into educating students with special needs, and most private schools simply aren’t equipped to meet those needs; it’s too expensive. Better to just turn away those students and focus on the ones that will require less investment to meet the school’s goals.
So what we end up with when we talk about school choice is a system that indirectly punishes students who don’t leave the public education system and blocks our most vulnerable students from actually choosing those “better” private options in the first place.