Choice and Walling Off Poverty

School choice has remained a compelling part of education reform discourse and policy into the twenty-first century—but not simply among conservative politicians and stakeholders.

For example, despite growing evidence that charter schools are essentially no better or worse than traditional public schools, political and public support for charter schools remains robust primarily because they are touted as parental choice.

And especially in the good ol’ U.S. of A., what could be wrong with all parents having the same choices that wealthy parents have?

Except, that bromide is compelling only within the context of idealizing choice—ignoring that parents make all sorts of horrible choices daily, negatively impacting their children, ignoring that parents tend to choose schools for socio-political reasons that have little to do with academic quality, and thus, that choice isn’t a positive market force for education reform but for one of the greatest ills to ever impact society and education in the U.S.: segregation by race and class.

While the talking points for school choice advocates have shifted over the last few decades, “all parents should have the same choices that wealthy parents have” drives the essence of their advocacy, and allows this ideology to skirt the overwhelming evidence against school choice as a positive mechanism for education or social reform addressing inequity.

During this presidential election season, amid rising social tensions, there is renewed calls for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Like school choice, this plan is compelling along extreme ideological lines only; in practice, both are unwarranted and even incendiary.

Yet, what we are failing to acknowledge is the act of walling is already in place in the U.S.—the wealthy walling off the poor, and the mechanism for that is choices made by the wealthy [1] that school choice advocates idealize:

There are over 14,000 school districts across the country. Many of the 35,000 borders that divide them contribute to increasing economic segregation and create barriers to opportunity that is sometimes just out of reach. This occurs in large part because between 40-60% of schools’ fortunes depend on property values in the neighborhoods that surround them. This reality creates incentives for wealthy areas to wall themselves off from their needy neighbors, keeping their property wealth for their own children’s schools and leaving other communities to fend for themselves.

Ironically, the school choice charade is about choice. [2]

As a country, we have made a choice not to address social, economic, and educational inequity directly. We have chosen instead to remain faithful to the invisible-handed God of Choice who daily raises one defiant finger toward the poor and disenfranchised.


[1] Explore the powerful interactive map at this link.

[2] A great deal of irony exists also in the funding for edbuild, including a number of neoliberal, pro-choice organizations.

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