School Choice, He Says

“The President was exactly right tonight to remind the nation of his call to expand education freedom,” DeVos said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with Congress on ways to give students opportunities to pursue the education that engages their curiosity, unlocks their creativity and empowers them to reach their fullest potential. It’s time to do what’s best for kids and get to work.”

What is school choice? And what is “education freedom”? Choice and freedom sure sound great! I like choices! I love freedom! But slogans must be interrogated: school choice, as DeVos and Trump promote it, is a practice that weakens the common wealth of public schools and fails to deliver on its promises. School choice doesn’t work.

The idea for school choice and vouchers comes out of the University of Chicago school of economics from the well known and influential Milton Friedman. His idea was that parents should be able to pull their child from a public school, take the tax dollars associated with that pupil, and spend that money at a private school.

School choice turns citizens of a democracy into rate-payers looking for a return on investment. This is a mindset shift that appeals to and expects the worst in us–the get mine before yours no matter the cost to others.

Yet the cost is high. What are often struggling public schools lose much needed funding and cities like Memphis, TN, end up with many schools that are run under capacity.

The logic behind school choice is that the market will improve educational outcomes and educational economics. Research on these outcomes across the history of Friedman-inspired school choice legislation from around the world has shown the failure of market ideas in education.

It is not cheaper, it does not produce higher achievement, and it erodes equity. Innovation, too, fails to materialize.

Sweden is an example of a country that, after the introduction of what Trump and DeVos would call “education freedom” or school choice, dropped year after year on the international test of record, the PISA. Not only did their overall scores go down (from 2000-2012), but their equity of outcomes did as well. In Chile they had similar issues with their nation-wide voucher program: lower test scores and lower equity.

Closer to home, Indiana has a state-wide voucher program, and, as in the dozens of other states and countries, results are not good. A 2018 longitudinal study of Indiana’s program showed that students who used vouchers to attend private schools had lower math scores than matched peers in public schools and English scores were not significantly different. So millions of tax dollars went to unregulated private schools that could have gone to public schools.

The lack of regulation has been highlighted in Florida’s voucher program. There, at least one study has shown the program participants are more likely than their public school counterparts to graduate from college, but the methodology of the study, produced by an industry-funded, conservative think tank, has been questioned. One issue with the study is that there was no mention of an attempt to match control group and experimental group pairs.

The idea that choice would spur innovation has been shown to be false as well. Chris Lubienski, an education policy researcher at Indiana University, has found the same old same in charter schools and other schools intended to be a part of “market-based reform.” As he says, choice and competition actually “constrain opportunities for educational innovation and impose pedagogical and curricular conformity.”

When stakes are high, when test scores have to go up or heads will roll, trying out new strategies that might not work isn’t really on the agenda. And that’s what happens when school choice reforms dominate: everyone from superintendents to principals to teachers are put in more precarious positions. And in precarious positions you stick with what you know.

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