warnings coming out of the political left that educational choice programs will “destroy public schools” or “harm our society,” and that calls for more educational choices represent an “assault on American democracy.”
Instead of painting the movement to provide more educational choices for families as a right-wing bogeyman, progressives would be better off understanding that voters, especially Black and Latino parents, support greater options within the public schools.
Aldeman makes some very valid points. The public system we have has huge room for improvement when it comes to equity. Other countries do have some variations on our basic set up that work.
And he offers five questions that "progressives should ask as they evaluate K-12 educational choice programs." And they are five questions, not all bad. Let's take them one at a time.
Are programs allowed to discriminate?
Aldeman notes that we have some segregation problems in our current system, and choice systems will allow a certain amount of self-segregation. Both true. But he hits the mark here:
States should protect against bad actors by requiring that any school accepting public money be prohibited from discriminating based on a student’s national origin, race, color, religion, disability, gender or familial status. If public money is going to private educational programs, they must be open and accepting of all students, and there must be protections and avenues for students and families to resolve conflicts. This should be a minimum bar to accepting public money.
Yes, yes and yes. Unfortunately, this gives us a problem right off the bat. The newest round of voucher (education savings account) laws not only allow discrimination, but specifically forbid any sort of state interference with the voucher-accepting school. And Aldeman has left out the right-wing elephant in the room, which is that voucher programs are largely about steering public dollars to private christian schools for whom discrimination is kind of the whole point.
I absolutely agree with him--but the voucher wing of the school choice movement emphatically does not, and if Oklahoma has its way, the charter wing may soon follow.
Is there a real check on quality?
I could quibble here that we haven't come up with any very good checks on public school quality, but I'll agree with Aldeman that whatever hoops public schools are jumping through, choice schools should jump through as well.
However, again, we are going to run over the religious right's desire to teach that the Earth is 4000 years old and that Black folks "immigrated" to the US. But Aldeman is right:
Anyone who cares about program quality should insist that all kids be tested against the same statewide standards.
Unfortunately, as I suspect Aldeman well knows, plenty of choicers have taken the position that program quality A) is far less important than the moral imperative to offer choice and B) states don't have to do anything because the invisible hand of the market will take care of all quality issues.
Are the funding programs progressive?
Aldeman allows that fears that voucher programs are just handouts for wealthy families are "well-founded." He suggests that states could issue vouchers of higher amounts to students with higher needs.
Is the program actively supporting disadvantaged families?
Aldeman says that transparency and accountability would help families make good choices, but I'll argue it's unlikely that any choice system will not suffer from asymmetrical information issues, and it is not in the vendors' interest to fix that. This is what you get when you unleash the free market--marketing in place of transparency.
Aldeman's solution is for the government to fund "choice navigators" aka a whole other level of bureaucracy to help families navigate the level of choice bureaucracy. I'm trying to imagine who these people will be and where we'd find them all (would this be a full time job? part time? minimum wage?), but there's another problem here-- many schools use the red tape and bureaucracy to weed out the families they don't want (see for example Sucess Academy).
Does the state treat existing providers (traditional school districts) fairly?
Aldeman makes some weak claims that competition improves public schools and the financial hit isn't all that bad, though he acknowledges that some folks are "justifiably concerned about what happens to traditional districts if they lose students, especially the most active and engaged families. They could become the school of last resort for the most expensive, most disruptive kids" even as he calls the concerns "overblown." But he does argue that states will have to figure out a lot of funding questions, and I would certainly welcome an end to the era in which the choice argument was based on the absurd notion that we can run ten schools for the same money we used to spend to run one.
Questions he left out.
I am never entirely certain whether I am a progressive or not, though I know that's the bin I'm generally tossed into. But here are a couple of other questions that this public school supporter thinks need to be answered when choice turns up.
Who actually owns the facilities?
Schools involve real estate--often highly desirable real estate. Who owns the building, the facilities, the ground on which they're located? As a taxpayer, am I owning something, or am I paying taxes so someone else can get rich?
Who is actually in charge?
Are the people at the top elected representatives of the taxpayers who have to conduct business in a public meeting, or a bunch of unelected officials who can meet in private elsewhere?
Is this a business or a school?
Is this business run for profit, either directly or indirectly? I'm not asking because I have some philosophical objection to businesses because I think making a profit is dirty and evil. I'm asking because businesses make decisions for business reasons, and I don't want to send my child to a school only to have the school yanked away at some point because the business case for the school no longer makes sense to the owners/investors.
Is it a religious school?
Public taxpayer dollars should not be going to private religious schools for all the usual reasons, but also because the mission of a religious school is inherently incompatible with the mission of public education (see Question #1 above). It's not a matter of one mission being good and the other being evil; they just don't fit together.
I appreciate Aldeman's offering what I read as a thoughtful take. I believe there are ways to incorporate choice ideas into the public education system (that's a whole other post), and it's worth it to have versions of that conversation wherever it crops up. It's never a bad time to have a deeper conversation about what "public education" means.
And while I understand why Aldeman would have an aversion to apocalyptic right wing boogeyman talk from public ed defenders, folks in the choice camp have to have noticed that they are currently allied with a lot of right wing boogeyman-looking folks who do, in fact, want to see public education either destroyed or converted. So I do want to see the grownups keep talking about the important stuff, but those conversations have to take place with an awareness of what's going on around them.