It’s March, which means it’s “choice” season for a lot families living in urban areas. Like many households, mine is on pins and needles waiting to learn where our teenage daughter has been accepted to high school.
She has taken three different standardized tests to be considered for admission at various public, Catholic and independent schools. She tried to convince us to hire a tutor, as some of her peers’ parents have, to give her advantage on these tests. We refused, because it seemed a bit much for eighth grade. Her father and I have spent hours crafting essays and filling out applications. We played in the local lottery to attend schools across town. We have taken off work to take her to visit school after school, where she has arrived, nervous in starched shirts, legs carefully crossed, to implore administrators to accept her. She is 14.
We have done all of this so we can avoid our struggling neighborhood school.
This system of school choice has powerful backers. The most influential is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the billionaire heiress whose proposed budget would pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the various privatizations schemes such as vouchers and charters that power this system of “choice.”
Washington, D.C., where I live, recently lost yet another city schools chancellor when it was revealed he had jumped the line to choose a school for his own daughter. Antwan Wilson resigned for violating a policy that he had authored, a policy that was supposed to stop well-connected parents and officials from gaming the system to win their kids spots at top schools. Wilson apologized, explaining that he got “tunnel vision” in trying to make the best choice he could for his own child.
He’s wrong about this. The tunnel is the feature, not the bug, of school choice. It is the same dark tunnel into which DeVos herself gazed, when she dodged Michigan state taxes for public schools that her own children might have attended if not for her fortune. Radical self-interest and self-preservation is the rotten, racist core of the whole ideology of school choice. There is no “we” in this: The entire point is to give individual kids an advantage. In putting his daughter above everyone else, Wilson used the school choice system precisely as it’s designed to operate.
This vision must change, both from the top down and from the bottom up. Families and taxpayers have swallowed the line that a privatized school “marketplace” will deliver on its promise of upward mobility for all. It is a cynical game that has done nothing to build up communities like mine, despite all promises to the contrary.
There was a time when education was not a public matter at all. In the early 19th century, wealthy families ― the DeVoses of the day ― hired their own tutors. Churches set up some private schools. Philanthropists like Sears executive Julian Rosenwald sponsored schools for some black children. The rest of America’s poor children, of all races, mostly worked to support their families and did not go to school. This changed after the Civil War, when reformers convinced the federal government to take over schools previously funded through private philanthropy, thus laying the groundwork for a universal right to education for all American children.
Thanks to Reconstruction-era compromises, these schools were racially separate and unequal from the beginning. It was in the 1950s, when civil rights reformers used the legal system to attack the system of apartheid, that the notion of “choice” first came to public attention. White parents demanded the right to “choose” not to send their kids to school with black children. They set up private academies, and in some cases shut down entire public school districts. Here in Washington, D.C., white families fled en masse, pretty much overnight, from the city’s public school system, in pursuit of the best “choices” for their children.
Even in a gentrifying Washington, white flight from universal public education has been the most enduring quality of urban life.
“There is an overwhelming pressure to abandon our own neighborhood institutions ― the ones that, like family, will embrace our children and accept them as they are.”
I have seen this game in action as a journalist and a parent ever since Congress started a choice scheme in D.C. two decades ago. We have watched as political regime after regime has picked off neighborhood schools like bloody carcasses rather than improve them. Meanwhile, the Wilsons of the world, the wealthy and connected who pass through town, have gamed the system to make sure they have taken advantage of the best public options we have.
D.C. public and charter schools are among the lowest performing in the country. The high-performing few are in wealthy, white neighborhoods; they’re filled to capacity with neighborhood kids or they are charters with impossibly long waitlists. We have a better chance of winning the actual Lotto jackpot than being able to send my daughter to one of the public high schools she applied to, including the one for which Wilson jumped the line.
I think our experience in D.C. is fairly typical. Each year brings a wave of new school openings and closings. Our kids change schools a lot, hunting the next big thing. When we lost our elementary schools to closures, we enrolled our kids across town. When it was clear we were not welcome there, we went to Catholic schools. Then we tried to save some money and send them to a new charter school. When that didn’t work out, we sent them private schools.
Even as it felt like our kids were thriving despite this broken system, it will be almost impossible for them to go to college without our family taking on an enormous loan burden. College costs have quadrupled in my son’s lifetime. Even if a family can afford to flee the public system and send their kid to a private school, the prize of getting in to a great college is tarnished by the crippling debt that will enslave them for the rest of their lives. When you calculate the longer sweep of their lives, we and most middle-class people living in the city can’t afford it.
A policymaker’s job is to improve the system for everyone. Instead, we’ve gotten the choice and “accountability movement,” which requires each school to release what amounts to an X-ray of inequality: test scores, racial and economic demographics and more.
In theory, requiring schools to release this data forces them to be transparent about their progress and helps policymakers decide which schools should get more funding and which should get the ax. In effect, it rewards schools attended by well-off families and punishes schools that aren’t. Parents with means can easily identify, and thus avoid, schools with more black and brown students and fewer resources.
So as wealthy families move in to my Ward 5 neighborhood, as Wilson did, it never occurs to them to consider our neighborhood high school, as Wilson later acknowledged. This is the message the system, and the man who ran it, conveys to parents: Run. There is an overwhelming pressure to abandon our own neighborhood institutions ― the ones that, like family, will embrace our children and accept them as they are. It is a terrible way to treat them.
“Parents and policymakers need to overcome the collective amnesia that has taken root in our society about the long, sordid story of school choice.”
A decade ago, when I went to check out my then-toddler’s assigned elementary school, the vice principal told me, “These kids have real problems,” and advised me to try to get my kids into schools in the white part of town. That neighborhood school was closed a couple of years later.
Now, my husband is kicking himself for not paying for that tutor. I am kicking myself about all of the wasteful investments our government made, with our tax dollars, in the name of “choice.” Instead of harnessing our energy into building up community institutions for the next generation of kids, we’re all splintered off and chasing opportunities everywhere except in our backyards.
The billions of federal dollars that continue to be pumped into school “choice” schemes pick off these institutions one by one, until like in New Orleans, there are no neighborhood schools left. DeVos’ funding injection would create a flurry of activity — school grand openings and grand closings — that would mask the privileges that continue to collect in small pockets (mostly the rich and white ones). Families fight to get into those small pockets.
The rest of us wait.
Parents and policymakers need to overcome the collective amnesia that has taken root in our society about the long, sordid story of school choice. So many of the choices that we make, personally and collectively, are about running away from this history. At some point, instead of fleeing and hunting for the next shiny scheme, we have to stay and conquer the inequities and disadvantages that have continued to accumulate in this country.
If we think we can all outrun it, I have some bad news.
Natalie Hopkinson is an assistant professor at Howard University and author most recently of A Mouth is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance.