Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Stop Calling It School Choice

When framing a debate, it helps to pick just the right names. Just ask the folks who decided to call their respective sides "pro-life" and "pro-choice." 

One of earliest victories for education privatizers was to coin the name "school choice." I don't know if somebody cleverly designed and tested it, or they just sort of stumbled over it, but it's a handy piece of coinage.

The Google Ngram for American English shows barely in use up through the mid-1980s, when it suddenly rocketed up the charts (aka immediately after the release of A Nation at Risk, A Nation at Risk, the Reagan era hit job on public education). That peak comes at 2001, then a steady drop since that year. 

I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of those instances are actually a misuse of the term. Because the privatization and reformster movements have got us using "school choice" to mean what it does not mean.

After all, we already have school choice, and always have. We have a requirement in most states that each child must get some sort of education, but how the child gets that education is a parent choice. Public, private, parochial, religious, home-- you can choose the school you want. But that's not what modern choicers mean by school choice.

Instead, they use the term "school choice" as a blanket term to cover a whole bunch of ideas that are not actually school choice.

Instead, "school choice" refers to a constellation of policies aimed at directing taxpayer dollars into the pockets of private operators. 

Charter schools do so by creating privately owned and operated schools that are nominally part of the system. They offer an alternative to some students, based not on what the students want but on what the school is willing to accept and able to provide.

But nothing looks less like school choice than vouchers. Vouchers--no matter what form they take--allow unregulated, non-transparent, oversight-free private schools to hoover up public tax dollars while discriminating and/or providing education of questionable value for society as a whole. The voucherized system envisioned by Milton Friedman and modern christianist nationalists is a system in which taxpayers subsidize religious schools and the government schools are cut to a bare minimum. 

Voucher schools retain the right to pick and choose their students, to reject or expel students for a variety of reasons or no reason at all. 

"But the public system we have provides good schools for rich kids and less great schools for the non-wealthy," argue voucher fans. But a voucher system would make that problem worse, not better. With universal vouchers, the wealthy would get a rebate to help pay for the schools they already send their kids to, and for poor kids, the high cost schools will stay out of reach (especially as they raise tuition). The biggest difference would be that in a voucher system, the public schools serving non-wealthy students would have even less funding. 

None of this is school choice. And it slips into the discourse. In an otherwise excellent Washington Post article that talks about "school vouchers," Laura Meckler and Michelle Boorstein write:
The growth follows a string of recent victories in the Supreme Court and state legislatures by religious conservatives who have campaigned to tear down what once were constitutional prohibitions against spending tax money directly on religious education. It also marks a win for the school choice movement, which has spent decades campaigning to let parents use tax money for any school they see fit.

Well, no. That wasn't a win for the school choice movement. It was a win for the Tear Down The Wall Between Church State and Force Taxpayers To Fund Christian Schools movement, which doesn't really have anything to do with school choice at all. 

The AP style book defines "school choice" as a sort of blanket term for a whole world of policies aimed at dismantling or privatizing public education. At least they suggest that writers "avoid using the general term when possible."

Fans of voucherizing public ed like "school choice" because it tests well. Ask people if they favor parents having the chance to send their children to the school of their choice, and they absolutely do. Ask them if they would like their tax dollars to go to help someone pay tuition at a private school instead of going to fund public schools, and they turn a big thumbs down. 

We already have school choice. What some folks are looking for is school choice that someone else pays for. And while it's a legitimate complaint that the choice we have is more accessible to the wealthy than the not-wealthy, there isn't a thing in the world of charters and vouchers that changes that a bit, and quite a bit that makes it worse. 

Both the public school system and the charter/voucher system are tied to the free market system--the public system through real estate and the charter/voucher directly--and all the problems that come with it (predatory marketing, picking winners and losers among customers, providing the bare minimum, discrimination, etc etc etc see also: a few thousand posts on this website). But the public system comes with an assortment of safeguards and guardrails that protect (sometimes very imperfectly) the rights of students, families, and taxpayers. The charter/voucher system, in most cases, has no such protections. 

Calling it all "choice" or "freedom" is a canny choice, just like calling a voucher a "scholarship" or a "savings account."  It's good marketing, but like good marketing it only sort of reflects the reality of the situation. Would more choices be better? Sure. I've even laid out how to do it, within certain boundaries (no public dollars for private schools that want to play by their own discriminatory rules). 

My frustration with various forms of education reform, from standardization through universal vouchers, is that I largely agree with the stated goals, but don't believe for a second that any of the favored policies will actually achieve any of those goals. I roughly divide the reformster crowd into people who really believe that their favored policies will work and those that know they won't (or don't care one way or another) because they have their eyes on other goals. 

So let's call it what it is. Privatizing school. Creating a market-based system. School vouchers.It's easier to have useful conversations about things like fundamental changes in the very nature of the country's education system if we call things by their name.

 *But only in America-- the British English Ngram British English Ngram shows a 2002 peak, a 2012 dip, and an all time high in 2019. But I'm not going down that rabbit hole right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment