What's the Problem With School Choice?

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: Molly McCoy, 10, left, and her other fifth-grade classmates Sidney Welch, 11, second from left, Lily
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: Molly McCoy, 10, left, and her other fifth-grade classmates Sidney Welch, 11, second from left, Lily Gillespie, 11, second from right, and Sidney's mom Randi, top center, from the SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, join the crowds at the Capitol. School choice supporters, parents, and teachers gather on the west steps of the State Capitol in Denver in support of National School Choice Week 2015 on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. The independent public awareness education campaign plans to feature 11,082 independently-planned special events across all 50 states. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

What could possibly be wrong with "school choice"?

The answer to that question depends on the answer to another: What does "school choice" mean?

Does "school choice" mean a school district creating magnet schools focused on science or the arts? Does it mean charter schools that are held to the same standards and accountability as traditional public schools? Does it mean creating tax schemes to funnel cash away from public coffers and into religious academies or for-profit cyber schools? Does it mean dismantling public education altogether and leaving schoolchildren to the tender mercies of the marketplace?

"School choice" can mean all those things, which is why it's not by itself a very useful term for debating policy choices. But it can be a very useful term for those whose agenda for public education lies on the more unsavory end of the spectrum. Some efforts that go under the label of "education reform" or "school choice" are clearly designed to strengthen our public education system so that it can better provide students with a quality education. But others are really mechanisms for diverting tax dollars to fund religious indoctrination, turning schools into corporate profit centers, or defunding public education. Covering them all under the "school choice" blanket lets the former provide cover for the latter.

The vague term is now appearing on tens of thousands of bright-yellow banners announcing "National School Choice Week," an annual public-relations blitz that blurs a wide range of education policy approaches into one friendly, poll-tested message about parental empowerment and student achievement. Undoubtedly many participants are people with a passion for strengthening public education and providing children with access to better educational opportunities.

But there are others. One sponsor of National School Choice Week is the Milton Friedman Foundation, whose founder advocated for getting rid of public schools entirely. Another has been an online charter-school company that stands to make millions from taxpayer dollars being diverted to private alternatives -- despite providing very mixed educational results.

Efforts to privatize schooling, attack teachers and drain taxpayer funds from public schools are deeply troubling. In 2012, after Louisiana passed a sweeping school-privatization law, taxpayers in the state learned that they were paying religious schools to teach students that dinosaurs and humans coexisted and that "God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ." Efforts to funnel young people to private charter or voucher schools can too often leave behind children with disabilities or allow discrimination. And on top of that, study after study has shown that voucher programs just don't work, failing to improve reading and math scores for the students who enroll in them.

It's no coincidence that this supposedly nonpartisan effort in practice has a strong partisan slant.

People across ideologies want our education system to work for America's children -- and that goes for many of National School Choice Week's backers as well as its critics. But let's not allow those whose real goal is the destruction of public education to cloak their agenda under the cheerful banner of "school choice." A strong public education system is the cornerstone of any thriving democracy. We should respond to flaws in that system by working to strengthen it, not starving it.