Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Charmed by Choice: Undermining Public Education

The assault on public education is not just an agenda pursued by some Americans. In Canada, there are those who would like to dismantle our public education system, and in Alberta they are the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party.

Of course they don't come out and say they want to destroy public education -- instead they sell their privatization agenda by talking about the freedom to choose.

It's quite ingenius really -- I mean who in their right mind would object to having more choice? This assault on public education is phrased very carefully so to make it very difficult to oppose -- because if you do oppose it, the quick response might be "what's wrong with you, you don't want choice?"

At this point, it's important to remember that when something looks too good to be true, it's usually not what it appears -- and when it comes to those who are selling choice as a means to authentically improve public education, they are either neglectfully ignorant, willfully blind or outright lying.

Pedro Noguera explains why school choice is not what it seems in his guest post for NBC's Education Nation:
The problem with using vouchers as a means to expand access to quality schools for poor children is that it is based on the premise that parents are the one's who do the choosing. The truth of the matter is that schools are the ones who choose and not parents. 
When a low-income parent shows up at a private school, especially an elite school with few poor children of color, there is no guarantee that their child will be chosen for admission - even if the parent has a voucher. This is particularly true if the child has learning disabilities, behavior problems or doesn't speak English very well. As we've seen with many charter schools, such children are often under-served because they are harder to serve and possession of a voucher won't change that. Many private schools maintain quality through selective admissions and vouchers won't change that either. 
Moreover, choice assumes that a parent has access to information on the choices available and transportation. Neither of these can be assumed. Many parents choose a school based on how close it is to their home or work, rather than the school's reputation. Many are unwilling to send their children to schools in neighborhoods far from their homes, particularly if transportation is not provided. 
The idea that vouchers would solve the lack of access to quality schools in poor, inner city neighborhoods is based on the belief that the free market is a better regulator of goods and services than the government. While this idea sounds good in theory, it's not borne out by the facts. 
In most inner city communities in the United States, the free market is not effective at providing healthy food at affordable prices, banking services or safe, affordable housing. That's because the poor in the inner city constitute a "captured market" and suppliers of goods and services are typically able to get away with low-quality products because community members have few available alternatives. 
Systems of school choice only work when there are lots of good choices available and a means for parents to exercise their choices. This can only be done when government insures quality by holding schools accountable for the quality of education they provide. Of course, our policymakers have largely failed to do this because they've focused on accountability as measured by student test scores, rather than concentrating on insuring that all schools have the resources and support systems in place to meet the needs of the students they serve, and holding themselves accountable if they don't.
Today more than ever, we need public education to educate all children to a standard that at one time may have been reserved for the elite. This means we can no longer afford to ignore the challenge of educating those who are difficult to educate.

In his publication Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, Marc Tucker tackles education funding:
Two decades ago and more, elementary and secondary education in most of the provinces was funded much the way it is funded in the United States, with each locality raising much of the money locally, with the provinces providing additional sums intended to moderate the disparities in per student funding that such a system inevitably produces.  But, about 20 years ago, this began to change.  Conservative governments, in response to complaints from citizens about skyrocketing local tax rates, initiated a move to steadily reduce reliance on local taxes and to increase the portion of the total budget paid for by the province.  In the biggest provinces now, little if any of the money for public education is raised locally.  All or almost all comes from the province.  Not surprisingly, the gross inequities that came with raising money locally are gone, too, and Canada, like the top performing countries elsewhere, is moving toward a funding system intended to promote high achievement among all students, which means putting more money behind hard to educate children than children who are easier to educate.
Vouchers and choice tend to benefit those who have already "won the lottery" and often alienates and marginalizes those who can least afford it. Competition and the free market is for the strong. Public education is for all. See the problem?

In some US states, there is a movement underway called the "Parent Trigger" which is being sold as a way to empower parents in reforming and improving their children's schools. However, upon closer inspection this is no more than another fraudulent ploy with a charming name whose objective is to undermine public education. Diane Ravitch writes:
In early 2010, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, the state legislature passed the "Parent Empowerment Act." This law is commonly known as the Parent Trigger. It allows a majority of parents in a low-performing school to sign a petition that leads to various sanctions for the school: firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to charter management, or closing the school. These are similar to the options in the U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Grant program. All of them are punitive, none is supportive of changing the school for the better, and none has a shred of evidence to show that it will improve the school. Neither the Parent Trigger nor the federal SIG program offers any constructive alternatives to unhappy parents, only ways to punish the school for low scores.
Supporters of the Parent Trigger say it empowers parents, especially poor parents, and gives them a tool with which to change their school. They say that it enhances not only parent power, but school choice.
Throwing educational funding to the competitive free market via school vouchers and selling it as the freedom to choose may allow politicians to look good but it offers a hollow promise to the families that can least afford to compete. It's sadly ironic that education reforms built around choice, competition and parent empowerment tend to victimize the very people they profess to be supporting.


  1. Well said! This is one of the best defenses of public education I've read.

  2. Unfortunately, we have a LOT of bad public schools. There are the ones everyone knows about (e.g., urban 'dropout factories') and also ones that are more under the radar (e.g., the ones you and I, Joe, would say are too test-focused and not student-empowering enough).

    How do we fix bad schools? Well, we can pour more resources into them, change how we evaluate them (not just test scores but accreditation reviews, for example), and make other investments in them to try and ensure / up quality. I think politicians think they've done all that. They can point to programs and monies and other resource allocations and then they're frustrated because the schools still don't change. So they look for other mechanisms to pressure schools to get moving (and, let's be honest, most schools are HIGHLY resistant to changing their basic paradigm) and one of those is introducing outside competition. You can see how the wheels turn in these policymakers' heads. You may not agree with them, but you can see their reasoning. It's not intuitive for them to see that the solution is MORE investment since they see what already has been done as not working (so why throw more of the same at it?).

  3. Not quite sure why you only identify the Wildrose party as supporting choice in education. Your research should also identify the fact that the current government instituted the voucher or "student/parent choice" system many years ago.

    With that said, PERSONALLY I would rather see a single public system that supports all students in a way that matches their unique abilities. It cannot be doubted that life is a competition and the "strong" rise to the top as leaders. It is impossible to legislate talent, ambition and desire and it is wrong to deny anyone the right to achieve their highest potential, even if that means putting a spotlight on those who do not care to achieve, for whatever reasons.

    It could be interpreted from your article that in your ideal system, brighter "stronger" students would be held back from achieving their full potential, so that the system could better support those of lesser ability (or desire) or those you describe as "more difficult to educate". It could also be interpreted as a very socialist approach that in the end has been proven time and time again to lead to reduced potential for everyone except those on the lowest rung of the performance ladder.

    In your bio, you claim you wish to challenge 'traditional' schooling while exploring more progressive forms of education. In my opinion, this article reads contrary to that goal, seeking or at least supporting a return to an older more traditional approach to the structure of educational institutions, with a slight modification to the funding model.

    Regardless of my opinion, I enjoyed your article.

  4. Brave and timely post... much appreciated! We have some new "choices" ahead of us in BC with the government's new education plan unveiled last week. Choice features prominently and is, as you suggest more about what the school system will offer up than about real choice for parents. Out of curiosity, have you ever read Ian Illich's Deschooling Society? He make a case for educational vouchers, but his leftist/anarchic tendencies make this more about deinstitutionalizing learning than free-market education.