Is School Choice Just Expanding Privilege?

Students who need the most support are not well-served by choice policies.
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When my father was 19 years old, he got into a serious car accident. At the time he was a college student studying to be a math teacher. The car accident kept him out of school for several months, and when he was ready to return, the scholarships that allowed him to attend college were no longer available to him.

He and his father went to the bank to take out a $500 loan in order to enroll in classes. The bank denied him the loan, and my father never went back to college ― instead, the bank hired him to work as a teller.

Despite the fact that he went on to be an officer and director in 37 banks throughout the Midwest, he always felt embarrassed when anyone discovered he didn’t have a college degree. To him, being “educated” was a sign of prestige.

My father’s success as a banker allowed him to live in nice homes, drive nice cars, travel the world, and live a very privileged lifestyle, but the one thing that mattered to him most was that his children receive the best possible education. His professional success allowed him to choose where our family would live and he chose Ames, Iowa because of the quality of the public school system. He was able to choose where we went to school, and it was a choice he took very seriously.

In a perfect world, all parents would be able to locate themselves in a neighborhood with a school that meets all of their needs. Those who advocate for “school choice” would have you believe that using tax dollars to build for-profit charter schools and vouchers will result in more students having access to better schools. “School choice” is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but the evidence suggests that choice policies most often do not result in better options for the students who need it the most.

The National Education Policy Center put out a report in 2016 that concluded that states and communities who created “school choice” options with tax payer dollars did not see significant gains in student achievement and also led to an “unsettling degree of segregation-particularly by charter schools-by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, and English-learner status.”

The reality is that students who need the most support are not well-served by choice policies. The National Education Policy Center report notes, “Parents with greater formal education and who are more affluent are more adept at maneuvering within the choice system. Because wealth and education are so strongly correlated with race, ethnicity and English-learner status, all of these forms of stratification are facilitated and exacerbated by choice (policies).”

I was fortunate to grow up with privilege, and it is important that those of us who have been blessed to grow up privileged recognize it. I am constantly amazed at those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

The story of my father helps me to frame our current conversation about public schools. My father wasn’t born on third base. He grew up in a working-class household (I’m being generous in that description) in a small town in Nebraska. He saw very little of the world outside of his small town, and it would have been easy for him to set low expectations for himself.

Instead, the public schools of Elm Creek, Nebraska encouraged him to dream big. He loved to name the teachers who challenged him to set high expectations, read about the world outside of his small town, and to ask big questions. When attending college was no longer an option for him, he had to rely on his education from the Elm Creek Public Schools while competing with people who had advanced degrees from major universities. My dad would tell you that the Elm Creek Public Schools held their own in those competitions.

Charter schools and vouchers aren’t going to help young people in Elm Creek, Nebraska; no one is building a charter school in Elm Creek. There is little evidence that they help young people in urban areas, where parents aren’t able to transport their kids to “better” schools in other parts of town.

Charter schools, vouchers, and other choice options make it easier for the privileged to take advantage of their privilege. More kids, like myself, who are born on third base, will get carried toward home plate, while we will leave many more kids in the batter’s box. That is why it is important that instead of putting taxpayer dollars into programs (charter schools, vouchers, etc.) that increase the gaps that already exist in our schools, we invest in the public schools that support EVERY student. There is surely a young person in Elm Creek, Nebraska who needs every opportunity to recognize their potential. That potential might lead them anywhere in the world or, like my father, it might lead them right back home to serve the community that gave them their start in life.

Don’t be fooled to believe that the important choices are about for-profit schools that aren’t serving all of our young people. Our focus has to be on creating conditions where the young people who attend our public schools have choices. They need to have choices about classes and activities in their schools. Most importantly they need to leave our public schools with choices about how they get to move on to college, join the armed forces, or enter the world of work. My father only had choices because his public school experience provided him with the foundation necessary to face the challenges the world presented him. Every young person deserves that same opportunity, not only the kids born on third base.

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