Where We Stand: School Choice

IIE_school_voice_profile“School Choice”– or what passes for such– has become a hot issue in the education debate. Though the word ‘choice’ sounds nice, it is often used to obscure a far less nice reality: massive school closures, as well as fraud and corruption in the poorly regulated virtual and private school sector.

School ‘Choice’: A euphemism for school closures

By now, the pattern of politicians and other public officials neglecting and under-funding schools, then declaring them failures, is well established. Often, these officials then appeal to the idea of ‘school choice’, claiming that competition will somehow naturally force struggling schools– which they still fail to support– to improve.

More deceptively, they often use the word ‘choice’ to describe reorganization plans in which they force teachers, students and their families out of their schools so that their buildings can be given away to charter operators or used for other purposes. The new charter schools frequently perform no better, and sometimes worse, than the schools they replaced. A number of scandals have emerged, concerning harsh school discipline, fraud and misuse of public funds. And all too often, they find ways to avoid serving the most vulnerable students–including English language learners, students with special needs, and students living in the most extreme poverty– pushing these students back into what remains of the local public school system.

Vouchers and Virtual Schools: Public money, private profit

Though accountability is another buzzword frequently used in education policy discussions, communities have had a hard time exercising it when it comes to vouchers and virtual schools. For instance, voucher schemes– which involve public school districts paying private school tuition for students– have never been shown to systematically improve outcomes for those students or the school system as a whole. Worse, because public officials frequently don’t exercise much control over private schools, incompetent and untrustworthy school leaders have been able to win considerable amounts of our tax dollars, in some cases without even demonstrating that they have adequate facilities or teachers. Others have abruptly shut down their schools and left families scrambling to find places to educate their children.

Virtual charter schools fare no better. Though they don’t have brick-and-mortar facilities and employ far fewer teachers than traditional schools, they often receive the same per-pupil funding. Yet even on narrow measures like standardized tests, these schools typically perform less than half as well as traditional schools. Much larger problems loom for virtual school students, who frequently miss out on the personal interaction that makes meaningful learning possible. Leaders at virtual school companies like K-12 Inc. are often more focused on continually enrolling new students (thus bringing in more money) than they are on ensuring that existing students are served well– when they keep track of those students at all. And even when districts decide to stop working with problematic virtual school companies, they are still obligated to pay the company the remainder of the contract.

Moving from ‘Choice’ to Voice

Well-run public school options like nonprofit charter schools and magnet schools can benefit communities and families. But choice can never be a substitute for voice: allowing all members of a school community to have a genuine say and decision-making power within their local schools.

We believe that the best way to ensure that all students can have the kinds of learning experiences they need to thrive is to have a fairly-funded public school system, overseen by democratically-elected school boards, and run by district officials who listen to and respect the community they serve. State and federal education officials should serve as guardians of equity, offering funding and support for communities when needed, and ensuring that schools respect students’ and families’ civil rights.

Further, we believe that all educators in all schools, not just charters, should be empowered to work with their communities to chart their own vision and mission. If families are interested in more public school choices, communities should decide how to offer those choices, not politicians or their appointees. School officials should never make decisions about facility usage or other reorganizations behind closed doors without public input. Not only does this frequently lead to bad outcomes for students and schools, but it divides the community, pitting stakeholders who want to keep their neighborhood schools against those who want the new schools. Lastly,  families should ultimately be the ones who choose schools. Public school leaders, too often pressured to maximize their performance data, should not be in a position to choose their students.

Choice can never be a solution to educational problems that were caused by ignoring student, parent and teacher voice. Instead of allowing politicians and outside interests offer ‘choice’ as a deceptive distraction, we must raise our voices for what we need to create safe, caring and challenging learning environments for all.