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Jersey Jazzman: The Misleading Rhetoric of School "Choice" Advocates: Wealth and "Choice"

One of the functions of this blog over the years has been to deconstruct the rhetoric of education reformers as they advocate for their preferred policies. Foremost among these is the expansion of school "choice."

"Choice," in our current discourse, comes in two basic flavors: charter schools (often sold as "public charter schools," despite the many problems with the term) and vouchers (often sold as "scholarships," although the difference is practically meaningless).

The rhetoric used to push for either or both is largely similar. One of recurring themes for both charter and voucher proponents, for example, is that "choice" is giving disadvantaged families access to the same types of schooling that advantaged families enjoy.

"Choice," you see, is the reason privileged parents can send their children to "good" schools, while less-affluent parents must consign their children to "bad" schools. Because of "choice," privileged families can move to places with "better" public district schools, or enroll their children in "better" private schools. If we offer all families "choice," the argument goes, they will enjoy the same access to "good" schools that the wealthy enjoy.

Implicit in this argument is an assertion -- sometimes overtly stated, sometimes not -- that, under a school "choice" regime, disadvantaged families will enjoy access to choices that are equivalent to the school "choices" the wealthy currently enjoy. 

The logic of this entire line of argument is dependent on the idea that charter schools or vouchers schools are offering the same sort of education that affluent families enjoy in suburban public schools or well-resourced private schools. If the argument of the choicers is not that these options are equivalent, they're not really addressing the root problem: they are essentially admitting that education, even in a choice regime, will remain unequal between the rich and the poor. Because any conception of "good" and "bad" schools is relative, they would be saying that the advantaged would still send their kids to "better" schools under a "choice" system, and the disadvantaged would be consigned to schools that are "worse."

But the rhetoric of the choicers doesn't ever suggests the choices for the less-affluent will differ from the choices for the affluent under a school "choice" system. To the contrary, their arguments are designed to have us all believe that more charter schools and more vouchers will finally give everyone the same "choices" the wealthy have.

Let's look at more than a few examples (all emphases are mine).

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Reason.com: "Wealthy families have long had school choice because they can afford to move to the districts with high-performing schools. Thanks to an antiquated government school funding system that closely ties zip code to education quality, low-income families have been at a disadvantage for decades. When they're implemented at the state level, school choice programs like Arizona's aim to give disadvantaged students a chance to break free from their circumstances and attend a school of higher quality than their neighborhood public school. They're meant to be a solution to the opportunity gap, not a way to make it worse.

Cato.org: "Under the status quo, wealthy families already have school choice while low-income families do not. Wealthy families can afford to live in districts with high-performing government schools or send their children to private schools. By contrast, low-income families generally only have one choice: the local assigned government school."

The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions: "However, Beshear clearly articulates a view that limits access to alternatives to only those children fortunate enough to reside in wealthy families.

WFPL-FM reported that during this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign, Beshear said: “If you want to send your kids to private schools, that’s your right. That’s a choice that many people make and should be able to make.”

Yet by opposing a voluntary giving program which make such choices possible for many families, Beshear is really saying: You can have more choices for your children if you have the wealth which allows you to write big tuition checks to private schools. But it’s just tough luck for those families and their kids who don’t."

The Institute for Justice (Nevada): "And the fact is that wealthy families already have school choice,” House said. “This is a program to promote the choice of low-income families and the Nevada Legislature is taking away those choices with this bill."

Democracy Prep Charter Schools: "I am not only a CEO of a network of high-performing charter schools, I am a black mother. I sent one of my children to my school, Democracy Prep, for his high school education. Democracy Prep was not perfect for my son. More variety in course options and a robust coding program would have been good for him. But it was the best option for me and my family. It was a choice that we made. And I am so grateful that I was able to exercise that choice. I am grateful that we weren’t relegated to a zoned school, as so many families are. You know, where zip codes determine schooling options and children are treated as a public resource? Why should wealthy families be allowed to exercise choice, with their feet and their pocketbooks, but low-income families be told to support the traditional public school system, even when that system is failing their children?"

The Illinois Family Institute"In recent years, school choice has been a battle many parents have joined, because it should not be only wealthy parents who have the freedom to choose their children’s schools. All parents should have that freedom."

The Foundation for Economic Education: "Under the current status quo, the quality of students’ education is often determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often people of color—have few choices. Hence, they typically attend schools with the poorest math and reading scores, the worst discipline problems, and the highest levels of violence.

A ticket out of these conditions is school choice, which financially allows parents to select the schools their children attend, regardless of whether they are public, private, or charter. Sanders is “strongly opposed“ to giving parents this option. He says this is because private and charter schools are led by 'unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.'"

The School Choice Movement"Opponents of school choice are loud, persistent and well funded.

But in Florida, they are not winning.

The reason is simple: the arguments for school choice are compelling.

Let’s begin with the issue of social justice. Affluent parents always have enjoyed the ability to pick their children’s schools. They can move into neighborhoods with high quality public schools. They can afford the tuition for top private schools."

The Foundation for Economic Education (again): "School choice offers a solution to this unfair reality where the rich are able to choose their school and the poor are stuck by law in a failing system. In 2016, the NAACP voted on a moratorium against charter schools, and over 160 black education reformers wrote an open letter in opposition to the declaration. They wrote: '[F]or many urban Black families, charter schools are making it possible to do what affluent families have long been able to to do: rescue their children from failing schools.'"

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Now, some might argue that none of the school "choice" supporters here are outright stating that disadvantaged families will have the same choices as the wealthy. They've left open an escape hatch: they didn't explicitly say the choices would be the same for the rich and the not-rich -- only that both would have choices. So we can't really say that the "choice" advocates are claiming that the rich and the poor alike will have the same access to the same types of schooling under their plans; that would be so unfair...

Except words matter. The entire point of bringing the "choices" of the wealthy into the conversation is to make the case that vouchers will grant the less-affluent something the rich already have. And no one here explicitly acknowledges the choices won't be the same; to the contrary, the reader is guided to the logical conclusion that the advocates are calling for equality in choices between the rich and the poor. Otherwise, schooling would remain unequal -- and what's the point in changing the system if that problem remains?

If choicers really want to argue this point, however, let's look at some more examples of their rhetoric -- examples where the authors explicitly state that school choice will offer the same options for less-advantaged parents that more-advantaged parents enjoy.

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Florida Parent Network"I support educational choice for all.

Educational options have existed for the wealthy for as long as anyone can remember. What’s controversial is when we suggest that those same options should be open to everyone."

The Heritage Foundation: "For students who do face adversity, the best thing we can do to level the playing field is to fix our broken public school system. Students who lack rigorous school choice options in their state must attend their assigned district public school, no matter the quality.

Restricting schooling options for families reinforces the cycle of poverty for students from poor neighborhoods, and undoubtedly affects a student’s preparedness for college.

Wealthy parents have been exercising choice for their children for decades, and it is time for state lawmakers to afford that right to all families."

The Manhattan Institute: "In the American public education system, children’s educational prospects are determined by their families’ zip codes. This system reinforces a cycle of poverty as parents living in poor districts are left with no choice besides local public schools. By giving low-income families the option to send children to higher-quality schools, school choice extends to low-income families a choice that is already available to wealthy families."

The Thomas Fordham Institute: "Why vouchers? It’s no secret that wealthier parents enjoy a greater choice of schools for their children. They can afford to purchase homes in high-status suburban districts or cover the costs of private school education.

Yet few low- and middle-income families have similar opportunities. They typically send their kids to a public school that is assigned to them based on residential address. Many times, this works out fine. But when it doesn’t, students with limited means are stuck in schools that don’t meet their educational needs.

School choice, including private-school scholarships, opens opportunities and levels the playing field for less-privileged families. In Ohio, more than 35,000 youngsters already use publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing. The overwhelming majority come from low-income and/or minority households or have a special need such as autism."

K12 Insight"To help, my colleagues and I have put together a practical guide to succeeding in a world of school choice.

[Read the guide: The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Capturing Market Share]

In it, we attempt to shine a light on the changes taking place—and help school leaders embrace a new mindset, one that levels the playing field and keeps students coming back."

Method Modern Schools: "Granting parents the freedom to send their children to the school of their choice, regardless of address, levels the education playing field. Charter schools achieve this by offering unique educational options for all families, regardless of neighborhood or income level."

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The explicit message here is that the choices offered through vouchers and charters will lead to everyone having the same choices. "Leveling the playing field" is a construction that sends a clear message: everyone's choices will be equivalent; otherwise, the field wouldn't be level. 

But let's be frank: the difference between these arguments and the ones further up is, in reality, tiny. The point of all of these statements is to get the readers to believe school "choice" will give to the less wealthy what the wealthy already have. The rhetoric of school "choice" advocates is clearly designed to make the case that charter schools and school vouchers offer everyone the same "choices" as advantaged families.

Which leads us to an obvious question: is it true? Are charter schools -- particularly the no-excuses charters in urban areas, enrolling large proportions of students of color -- at all equivalent to the public district schools found in the leafy 'burbs? Are voucher schools at all similar to suburban district schools, or the elite private schools down the street?

I've spent a lot of time on this blog over the years addressing the first question, and the answer is clearly: no, in no way are "no excuses" charters like suburban district schools. I haven't spent as much time on the second question; given the pumping up of the school voucher movement since the installation of Betsy DeVos as the SecEd, it's a point that's worth exploring. 

But the fact is that school voucher amounts are generally quite small compared to the costs of educating a student in a well-resourced private school. So it's clear that no, these programs are not offering an education that is equivalent to that enjoyed by affluent families. Again: I'm planning to get more into this question over the next year.

For now, it's enough to say this: the rhetoric of those who promote school "choice" clearly attempts to make the case that charters and vouchers grant less-affluent families choices that are equivalent to those of more affluent families. If these advocates are going to continue to make their arguments in this way, they then have an obligation to show that no-excuses charter schools and voucher-accepting private schools are equivalent to suburban public schools and well-resourced private schools.

Running away from this obligation is tantamount to admitting their rhetoric is misleading. And I know they would never want to do that... 

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. Weber is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy.