School choice strawmen are a formidable army that thinking people have yet to defeat.

Nevertheless, we must keep trying.

As a reader who casually consumes education debate in mass media, I understand if you see school choice as a stealth scheme, devised by racist wealthy people to destroy wonderfully performing public schools that produce annual bumper crops of democratic fruit in the form of well-adjusted citizens.

Our teachers work so hard, and our schools get so little funding. Fix those two things, and there is no need for choice. Or, so we’re told.

Add to the mix a towering voice like the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, who tells you that charter schools—which are one primary form of school choice—are the “polite cousin of segregation,” what else would you believe?

On that point, I’d ask you to consider the fact that Weingarten started two New York charter schools herself, which, perhaps it logically follows, makes her the gentle aunt of segregation. If nothing else, it makes her a good symbol for the duplicitous nature of education politics and debate.

The truth is that school choice theory predates the convenient points in time that its critics use to bludgeon it. Long before the racist “segregation academies” school choice opponents rightfully say were erected in the south to publicly fund white private havens from desegregation, there were full-blown choice programs that provided vouchers for families to use at public or private schools. The oldest of these programs dates back to 1869 in Vermont.

And, to broaden the scope, we should call in Ashley Berner’s excellent research that explains school choice as a global norm in advanced countries. In fact, the United States is an educational outlier for not publicly supporting private education.

In a report she wrote for the Manhattan Institute (“The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S.”) she says:

A majority of the world’s democracies support school systems in which the state funds and regulates but does not necessarily operate, a mosaic of schools. The Netherlands, for example, supports 36 different types of schools—including Catholic, Muslim, and Montessori—on an equal footing. The U.K., Belgium, Sweden, and Hong Kong help students of all income levels attend philosophically and pedagogically diverse schools. So do most Canadian provinces. Funded schools in these pluralist systems are also subject to robust regulations and, in some cases, to a common academic curriculum. Educational pluralism does not guarantee high academic performance and strong civic behaviors, but when this system is well-executed, it makes such outcomes more likely. Importantly, educationally plural countries also provide for what the U.S. calls “district schools”; a third of Dutch students attend them. The difference is that, in educationally plural systems, many types of schools are considered to be part of the public education system.

Realizing that most of the world disagrees with us on how much opportunity governments should afford citizens when it comes to learning environments for children, we have to question the politically stubborn antipathy for private schooling and the prevailing parochialism of one-size-fits-some government schools. Some traditional schools do amazing things for their students while others fail spectacularly to provide even a basic level of education. The same can be said for all other forms of schooling. A great option for one family may be an outstandingly bad one for another. From that view, choice is not about defining any school as good or bad as much as defining it a school as good or bad for a specific child.

I write about choice frequently because, having been a parent for three decades, I know kids have different needs. My little mathematician may need a different school than my baby artist or my special needs student. Sending them through one all-purpose schoolhouse door may not only be suboptimal, but it might also be inhumane knowing what I know about their needs.

Does it help to tell families like mine that we should concern ourselves more with the impact our school choices have on the system than how the system impacts our children?

Further, what good is an education system that prioritizes its welfare over the welfare of the vulnerable populations it supposes itself to serve?

I don’t ask these questions to be a heretic to America’s public education precious little temples as much as to be a realistic and ruthless guardian of my children’s’ intellectual development. Still, I know my voice alone isn’t enough to conquer the tower of oppositional rhetoric generated by public employees or their unions. Especially when they count ideologically intoxicated journalists, servile politicians, overly-lettered academics, and posh parents who benefit from the existing system that privileges some families to the detriment of other families as their adherents.

So, to rescue school choice and its history from the dull thinkers so dominant in our country’s facile discussion about education, it’s essential to consistently broaden the conversation with the voices of thoughtful people of note from past and present.

To that end, I raise a quote from famed sociologist James S. Coleman. In a 1977 U.S. News & World Report article, he prescribed school choice to remedy deteriorating conditions in public schools.

He said:

There are three key problems [that] face the schools right now :

One is the dissatisfaction of parents and students—because of the feeling that the schools are not working well.

Secondly, there is the extreme loss of the schools’ authority, particularly with regard to maintaining discipline.

Third is the reduced levels of academic achievement at schools everywhere—in small towns; big cities and suburbs.

If there were one change that I would make to resolve these problems, it would be to introduce vouchers, or entitlements, for parents to use in educating their children.

Under that system, each family would be given a voucher that would permit it to send children to any school—public or private—in any school district regardless of where the family lived. The value of the entitlement would be roughly equivalent to the per-pupil expenditure in the public school.

The school that received the voucher would then cash it for operating funds. It would work very much like food stamps, except it would benefit all persons instead of just low-income persons, and people wouldn’t have to pay for it as they do in differing degrees for food stamps.

The advantages of such a plan?

  • To begin with, it would allow more authority for teachers and principals because the students would not be compelled to go to a particular school, but rather to one of their choice. This allows the school to demand more of those who choose wide range of schools, including those that have very different educational philosophies and curricula.
  • Furthermore, competition between schools—particularly public and private—would be raised because there would truly be a mixed economy in education, with State-run and privately run institutions serving as models for each other.
  • In addition, I believe a voucher system would help resolve the problems of segregation and white flight. It’s not going to wholly solve those problems, but it will help prevent segregation which currently occurs on the basis of residence. It would especially aid lower-class and Black families because it is they who are most restricted in their schooling on the basis of their residence. It would also reduce the fears of parents—Black and white—whose children are, under some current desegregation plans, transferred to schools, not of their choice far than their homes.
  • Finally, it can restore a sense of control over their children’s education on the part of parents who feel they have been pre-empted by professional educators, administrators, and organizations.

Agree or disagree with this analysis of family-based school choice; you would be wrong to argue that it is the ignorant pulp of an ill-willed plutocrat. That type of demagogic shorthand is a go-to weapon for school choice opponents. It is also a dishonest one. I prefer fair people to debate urgent and critical issues like educational inequality or poor educational outcomes more productively.

While not a cure-all to educational failure, research shows promising signs that school choice stokes improvements beyond test scores: it improves political and economic freedom; increases graduation rates; and even reduces crime and unplanned pregnancies.

Those favorable results, while not an answer to all the critics, add context to school choice. Properly understood through its actual proposals and its documented history, choice has always been rooted in improvement, parental power, opportunity, hope and social fairness. It is more characterized by its earliest start in Vermont’s tuitioning program, and in its best modern example, in Milwaukee where Black leaders and families fought for and won America’s first modern choice program.

Let’s put the strawmen in the barn and have a worthy debate.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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