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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability



School choice is rooted in the belief that parents should be able to decide the type of education their child receives (a belief echoed in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and should be aided in their efforts to ensure the best-quality education for their child possible. Parents may rightly seek to secure an education to promote the individual personal growth of their unique child or to perpetuate their specific family or cultural values. Contemporary school choice scholar Jeffrey Henig argues that “educational choice can help improve our schools by providing a safety valve for the discontented, a source of information to policymakers about shifting preferences and school performance, a way to reduce pressures on school administrators to micromanage the classroom, and a way to limit the need to resort to coercion in order to enforce the law and promote social goals.”15 In these regards, school choice may offer significant benefits to parents, schools, and policymakers.

School choice approaches originated in the mid-1950s, largely out of the ideas of economist and free-market advocate Milton Friedman. They grew slowly in fits and starts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, were affirmed as one of the four pillars of NCLB at the turn of the century, and have increased exponentially in the last decade. Informally, families with financial means have exercised school choice for many decades by simply moving their children from one school district to a better one by buying a home in the preferred school district or by withdrawing their children from public schools and purchasing private school tuition. Official school choice programs were instituted to more fairly extend choice and parental control to families who could not afford that luxury using solely their own means, though the programs have continued to bring greater levels of control and empowerment to wealthy families over poor ones.16 There are multiple forms of school choice today, including choice within a geographic district, open enrollment, homeschooling, vouchers, and charter schools.

One approach to school choice, intradistrict choice, began in the 1970s in East Harlem. It allowed parents to choose between traditional schools and alternative schools within the geographic district. The alternative schools were thought to provide competition to the traditional schools and would raise the bar for performance in the community. As programs like this spread throughout the country, the focus became not only on providing alternative options, but also on schools focused around specific themes (often called magnet schools). Many people believed that magnet schools would better attract and retain students’ interest in school and would also better racially integrate schools than relying on traditional geographic catchment areas to populate schools. As time passed and as the consumer culture continued to grow, magnet schools increasingly came to be seen as fulfilling niche consumer markets, from equine schools for children interested in horses to architecture schools for budding designers.

A second and related form of school choice is interdistrict programs, more commonly known as open enrollment plans. These enable parents to select public schools outside their home area or district; they free parents from the constraints of geography. These programs launched in New York City and Minnesota in the 1980s and have since become common across the country.

But even as some parents looked elsewhere for better schools, others looked into their own homes, choosing to remove their children from the public schools and educate their children themselves. Some parents receive instructional assistance from purchased curricula, textbooks, online schools, or private tutors. Homeschooling has been legal in all states since the late 1990s and has steadily increased in participation since then, with nearly 2 million students currently educated at home.17 In addition to concerns with public school quality, the decision to homeschool has sometimes been influenced by worries about popular culture influences, bullying, and violence in schools. And significantly, many parents choose this option to emphasize their religious preferences, preferring to pass on their religious views as a part of education in ways that secular schools cannot.18 While such a setting may preserve family beliefs, it may not teach democratic values of tolerance or engage children in working across religions or other ideological differences.

A fourth form of school choice began with Friedman’s call for vouchers in the mid-twentieth century. He argued that providing parents public dollars to purchase admission into the school of their choice, regardless of its public, private, or religious affiliation, would better respond to the consumer demands of parents, create a wider variety of schools, and provide competition to make schools perform better so that they could attract students and voucher dollars. School choice via vouchers was thought to shake up the status quo held in place in public schools by administrators, teacher unions, and others with vested interests in the traditional school system. Friedman argued that accountability for the schools funded by vouchers would come from below—from those who chose to enroll in the school. These people could then express their dissatisfaction by withdrawing their voucher and using it elsewhere.

Despite Friedman’s best intentions, some of the earliest proponents of vouchers sought them as a way to avoid forced integration of public schools in the years following Brown v. Board of Education, insofar as the vouchers enabled white parents to purchase admission into private schools that were almost exclusively white. While recognizing that this was a morally objectionable use of vouchers, Friedman stuck to his principles of competition and the free market, forsaking the most basic responsibility of equal educational access to all children.

The principles of competition and the free market were picked up by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who invited Friedman to serve as his adviser. Unlike Friedman, though, Reagan toned down the call for vouchers and emphasized equity, arguing that vouchers should only be used by the poorest-performing students. Later, in his second term, he backed off of his call for vouchers even more.19 Reagan’s focus on choice was later affirmed by his secretary of education, William Bennett, who went on to lead a major for- profit online charter school in the twenty-first century. The voucher idea, while disliked by teacher unions and many Democrats, was picked up by Right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, who later spearheaded research supporting and policy calls for voucher programs in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.

Notwithstanding the approach’s strong Republican alignment, it was Democrat representative Polly Williams who first pushed forward the Milwaukee voucher program in 1990. Despite a lack of clear research indicating strong or superior academic performance in voucher schools across their twenty-five years of operation and 63% of the public disapproving of them today, voucher programs have continued to spread and grow.20 They have also sprouted related programs offering alternative forms of vouchers such as scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, and individual tuition tax credits. Because voucher programs must first be authorized by state legislatures, some of the Republican think tanks, as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council, have assisted in crafting voucher programs and policies that can then be picked up by state officials and put forward as new bills.

One of the most controversial voucher programs, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, began in 2003, was closed down in 2009, and reopened again just a few years later, as elected officials and citizens struggled to decide what to do with the program. In the Milwaukee program, 80% of families provided vouchers have chosen to use their vouchers to attend religious schools. Similarly, 82% of families in Washington, DC have made the same decision. Notably, many of these families may have based their decisions on the academic merit of those schools rather than their religious affiliation. Those choices have not only led to significant declines in public school enrollment in these cities (20% in Milwaukee and 56% in DC between 2000 and 2010), but have also raised serious questions about the legality of funneling public money into privately run schools that may be for-profit or religious in nature.21

Some question potential violations of the separation of church and state, while others mistrust how public taxpayers lose the ability to influence the actions of private owners of the schools that receive their funds. These questions have led to major court cases across the country, including a 1998 Wisconsin case and the 2002 US Supreme Court case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that have upheld the constitutionality of using public funds to pay religious schools. In other states, however, such as Florida in 2005 and New Hampshire in 2013, courts have found vouchers to be out of compliance with regulations separating church and state, particularly in terms of funding. Finally, vouchers used at religious schools, like homeschooling, may fail to teach tolerance and interaction across religious and ideological differences, a key responsibility of functionally public schools.

While vouchers are now used by more than 308,000 children in 18 states and the District of Columbia, they have begun to lose steam as charter schools have taken off.22 Some voucher advocates have shifted their advocacy to charter schools, perhaps recognizing that those schools supported and furthered their earlier efforts toward privatization by having public money follow the child into less regulated and sometimes for-profit schools in new ways.23 Charter schools are alternative public, nonsectarian schools that are freed from some state regulations, such as requirements regarding class size, teacher certification, length of school day, and disciplinary procedures. They are meant to have a smaller organizational structure than traditional public schools, thereby trimming bureaucracy and achieving greater efficiency, in many cases by having undemocratically elected boards. Charter schools are intended to have greater autonomy and freedom than traditional public schools. And, if they fail to perform or attract the necessary market share, they are intended to be closed. Some people were attracted to charter schools rather than vouchers because they initially seemed to retain more local, democratic control, but, as I will explain, this situation has changed as more charter schools have increasingly been overseen by operators from outside of local communities.

Charter schools originated from ideas put forth separately by professor Ray Budde and teacher union leader Albert Shanker. Both argued that groups of teachers, parents, or community members should be able to come together to request a charter to operate an innovative school that would meet their unique needs. Both believed that charter schools could experiment with new and cutting-edge pedagogical practices, identifying successful ones that could be replicated by traditional public schools. While charter schools have given rise to a wide variety of types of schools, from online schools to those centered on unique ethnic cultures, only some of their practices have been found to be significantly effective and few have systemically spread to other schools.24

Charters arose alongside vouchers in Minnesota in 1991, but have grown much more quickly than vouchers in recent decades. Whereas only 31% of citizens polled in 2015 supported the use of vouchers, 64% supported charter schools.25 And, whereas only about 2,000 charter schools served less than a half million students in 2000, 4,000 charter schools served more than 1.4 million students in 2010, and more than 5,000 charter schools served over 4 million students in 2015.26 This growth was accelerated, in part, by the RTTT program, which required states to lift or decrease their caps on the number of charter schools permitted in their states in order to access federal funds.

Even as charter schools have rapidly grown, some have recently encountered significant roadblocks, including the 2015 Washington Supreme Court decision that charter schools are not truly common schools as defined by their constitution.27 Additionally, the National Labor Relations Board has determined that charter schools are private with respect to labor issues, including private approaches to employment of personnel and relatives, in addition to private approaches to expenditure of funds and rental contracts. Their rapid growth, juxtaposed with their limited success, quasi-private nature, and troubling court findings, suggests that we must be careful not to be too quick to celebrate charter schools and should instead carefully consider their publicness, their public impact, and their fulfillment of the five public school responsibilities I outlined earlier.

Charter schools have also begun to reshape how we prepare teachers, as some have opened schools of education, including Match Teacher Residency in Boston and Relay Graduate School of Education in eight large cities, including New York and New Orleans. These teacher training programs adopt many of the same principles as charter schools insofar as they are freed from some oversight and bureaucracy, while keeping a close eye on efficiently demonstrating improvement in student test scores. Unlike traditional teacher education colleges that emphasize inputs by requiring several years of coursework spanning content, child development, and educational theory, these shortened, intense, immersion programs emphasize outputs in terms of demonstrable teacher performance. They are growing rapidly and have been supported by several education reform organizations, such as the New Schools Venture Fund, and have been backed by proposed policies like the Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals (GREAT Act). They offer aspiring teachers the opportunity to be immersed right in schools, many of which serve high-needs populations, while completing their teacher training. Most of their graduates are intentionally funneled back into charter schools once they graduate, where they can carry out the mission and ideology aligned with the charter program that trained them—creating an insular cycle.28

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