Skip to main content Problems Posed By School Choice Can’t Be Ignored

Enraged school choice advocates stormed the Internet over the past few days to defend their cause from criticism no matter how reasonable.

What sparked the anger of remarkably thin-skinned proponents of charter schools and school voucher programs were criticisms that school choice without proper governance has, and can still, increase racial segregation and undermine the public schools that low-income communities of color rely on to educate their children.

The objects of their wrath, specifically, were a speech given by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on school vouchers and a report issued by the national NAACP on charter schools.

In her speech, Weingarten had the temerity to point out, “Decades ago, the term ‘choice’ was used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians.”

That assertion has a basis in fact. A recent report from the Center for American Progress documents how, more than 60 years ago, county officials in a rural Virginia county who objected to court-mandated desegregation, following the landmark Brown v. Board of decision, chose to close its segregated public schools and issue all the white kids vouchers to attend private schools instead.

The report explains, “By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,”and vouchers were implemented as a means of diverting public funds to those private schools, allowing white communities to evade desegregation requirements.

Today’s voucher programs vary considerably in intent but often produce segregation, if not by race, then by income or other means.

CAP points to Indiana’s voucher program that “increasingly benefits white, suburban, middle-class families more than the low-income students in underperforming schools whom the program was originally intended to serve.”

Indiana is not the only example. Many studies have found that voucher programs lead to more segregation because those parents who tend to use them are more educated and have a higher socioeconomic status than those who do not.

The voucher program in Arizona, an education tax credit program, designates only about 3 percent of voucher money to special-needs students, and barely a third goes to children of low-income families.

In Nevada, most applicants for vouchers are not from low-income areas in the state. North Carolina’s voucher program sends money to private schools that blatantly exclude students on the basis of religion and sexual identity.

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a huge fan of vouchers, was asked during a recent budget hearing before Congress whether a voucher program funded by federal dollars should send money to private schools that can discriminate on the basis of race or disability, she refused to answer the question.

Clearly the record, both past and present, bear out Weingarten’s claim that “private schools can–and many do–discriminate, because they don’t follow federal civil rights laws. Vouchers increase racial and economic segregation. And they lack the accountability that public schools have.”

The report from the NAACP that unhinged school choice proponents was equally grounded in facts.

The subject of the NAACP’s examination was charter schools, another favorite of school choice fans, and the increasingly harmful effects they are having in African American communities

A year ago, the NAACP drew national attention when it passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters until these schools “are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.”

After the storm of criticism coming from school zealots, the NAACP created a task force on charter schools whose mission was later expanded to include recommendations on “actions needed to improve the quality of education for all children of color being educated with public funds and to ensure the sustainability of an effective public education system for all children.”

As my colleague professor Julian Vasquez Heilig reports, the NAACP’s new report acknowledges that public school systems that serve low-income communities of color are indeed struggling to deliver high quality education, but the problems stem more so from unfair funding, not lack of choice. And unregulated choice in the form of charter schools exacerbates problems with inequity.

The evidence base for the NAACP’s conclusions is drawn from “more than 50 hours of public testimony in seven cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and New York,” writes former public school principal Carol Burris in a blogpost at the Washington Post. “Members heard testimony from both charter proponents and opponents. Community leaders, policy experts, parents and students spoke.”

“While high quality, accountable, and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity,” the report authors write, “by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

To create a more stable, sustainable school system, the NAACP recommends equitable and adequate funding for schools, especially for low-performing schools. And the role of charter schools in the system needs to be better regulated, specifically by mandating a more rigorous authorizing process, controlled solely by the local districts where charters reside, and ending the role that for-profit charters and for-profit charter management companies play in the system.

Until charter schools can adhere to these recommendations, the NAACP stands by its call for a moratorium.

It’s important to note neither in Weingarten’s remarks nor in the NAACP report are there any calls to eliminate more parent choice in school systems, or to close down existing charter schools or end the creation of new charters in perpetuity.

Public school advocates readily admit the systems they advocate for are often flawed, criticism from the well-intentioned is necessary, and intervention is often required to right what’s not working well for families and communities.

Is it asking too much of school choice advocates to do the same?

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...