Don’t Buy School Choice Week

When I wrote Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform almost four years ago, I had recently spent a great deal of time researching and writing about school choice within the focus of parental choice.

Then as well as now, the ever-growing body of evidence shows that school choice, parental choice, and market forces never achieve the outcomes advocates claim. And yet, each year we must suffer through School Choice Week, which is just a slightly heightened and compressed example of the same sort of misleading advocacy that exists every week of the year in the U.S.

Choice, we must acknowledge, in the U.S. is a sort of consumer choice: We must allow people the choice of either a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (but choosing not to drive shall not be on the table).

So when any school choice advocate launches into the typical blather that we must give all parents the sort of choice that wealthy parents have (one of the most insincere and distorted examples of manipulative rhetoric you’ll hear), we must not allow the debate to remain within a skewed choice-only context.

As I have stated before, democracy depends on social contracts that rise above the necessity of choice:

choice quote

Since School Choice Week slips into the wake of celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. (see also how parental choice has been manipulated in the “no excuses” charter school debate), we must also note that choice is a hollow call dedicated to the Invisible Hand and a pale hope that market forces may accomplish indirectly what a moral people can accomplish directly—as King confronted in the last days of his life:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Again, the evidence is overwhelming that public, charter, and private schools have about the same impact on students once we adjust measurable student learning by external factors.

Private schools appear to be better mostly because they are selective (think of judging hospitals that admit only healthy patients compared to hospitals that admit all patients), charter schools waving higher achievement fail to note that such measurable gains tend to equal the longer days/years and are not attributable to any aspect of “charterness” (my analysis of two years of charter schools in SC shows that fewer than a handful of over 50 charters outperform comparable public schools), and both private and charter schools reveal that choice often contributes to negative outcomes such as segregation, teacher and student churn, and inequitable opportunities for marginalized students such as English language learners and special needs students.

And while private schools as powerful models of what market forces produce fail to show that type of schooling impacts significantly student achievement, that parental choice advocates ignore the qualities of private schools most attractive to parents illustrates the insincerity of school choice proponents: private schools popular with the affluent have very low student/teacher ratios, yet class size is routinely discounted as important among reformers who embrace choice; private schools offer rich curricular offerings including so-called electives that are being cut and marginalized in public and “no excuses” charter schools.

School choice lacks credible evidence for advocates’ claims, and choice advocates’ constantly shifting commitments also reveal questionable credibility: vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school open enrollment, and charter schools as primary mechanisms as well as higher grades, graduation rates, and college enrollment as moving targets of “success.”

Choice in education is an ideological lie driven by an idealized faith that ignores the negative consequences of choice: some parents choose for their children to drop out of school, some parents choose to smoke with their children in the car, some parents choose to place their children in schools based on racist and classist beliefs.

School Choice Week, then, is a marketing scam. Don’t buy it.

The Public School Advantage, Christopher A. and Sarah Theule Lubienski

Parental choice?: A critical reconsideration of choice and the debate about choice

Choice

Charter schools

“School Choice Week” is a Good Time to Review the Evidence (NEPC)

Beyond Choice: The Invisible Hand v. Lady Justice

Free market advocates have sought a series of talking points and justifications for an equally wide array of school choice formats over the past twenty to twenty-five years, primarily because the public has been resistent to school choice plans.

One tactic common among choice advocates is to associate the Invisible Hand of the market with Lady Justice, blurring the essential nature of choice and competition as sorting mechanisms with the goal of equity among educators seeking social justice: “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have,” goes the claim.

Lady Justice

American capitalism has a long history of demonizing the Commons as “government” and idealizing corporate America as the “free” market, and part of that narrative includes ignoring the place of the Commons as a foundation upon which a free market can thrive.

The Invisible Hand, however, driven by choice and competition always sorts and never attends to social justice or equity.

Take for example the facts around Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s broken leg during the Elite 8 round of the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament.

As David Sirota has explained, Louisville does not guarantee scholarships (if Ware’s injury renders him unable to play basketball again, he loses his scholarship) and even Ware’s medical bills may fall on his shoulders.

Yet, the Invisible Hand sees not the problem of equity and justice in Ware’s situation, but that Ware and his injury are marketable, explains Dave Zirin:

On Wednesday we learned that Adidas, in conjunction with the University of Louisville athletic department, will be selling a $24.99 t-shirt with Kevin Ware’s number 5 and the slogan “Rise to the Occasion” emblazoned across the back. His team will also be wearing warm-ups with Ware’s name, number and the slogan “All In.”…

You almost have to tip your cap: no non-profit does buccaneer profiteering quite like the NCAA. What other institution would see a tibia snap through a 20-year-old’s skin on national television and see dollar signs? In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life.

This is the ethics of the market: Is there a market? And what selling price will that market bear against the cost of producing the goods?

Little concern for right or wrong occurs unless the Commons are involved.

Commons such as the legal system were necessary to end child labor [1] or worker abuse as portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or American slavery—all of which were beneficial to the market.

Consider the free market police force in the science fiction allegory RoboCop, or that market-based military forces are mercenaries.

The capital-based market corrupts, but the Commons seek, preserve, and spread equity as long as they remain above capital and beyond choice.

So let’s return to the compelling “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have”—to which I say, No.

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

And then it is upon this Commons beyond choice that the Invisible Hand may create an economy that a free people deserve.

[1] The market-based call for merit pay in education creates child labor.

Unmasking the Meritocracy Myth

Political leadership, corporate leaders, and the media share a fascination with the meritocracy myth, primarily in the perpetuation of the claim that meritocracy already exists. Somehow the U.S. has risen above racism, sexism, and classism, resulting in a society where all success is a reflection of high character and all failure is the result of laziness and flawed character.

As long as the claim of a meritocracy remains, “no excuses” rhetoric continues to be both effective and corrosive. Ironically, those most enamored with the meritocracy myth are also those most resistent to any policies or actions that would in fact produce a level playing field for children. “No excuses” ideologies are the environment within which children from disadvantage are told to work harder to catch up with their privileged peers.

In reality, however, the U.S. is not a meritocracy, and as long as we claim that it is and resist taking action that could make it a reality, inequity will not only exist but also thrive and widen.

Choice advocates are comfortable with an invisible hand somehow creating that equity of opportunity, ignoring that the market allows privilege to beget privilege and inequity to beget inequity. A true meritocracy would not come about by the invisible hand, but by taking steps that the privileged will never embrace because it would end generational privilege. A true meritocracy would put to the test who deserves what, instead of the accident of any child’s birth determining that child’s life.

The market fetish of the U.S.—resistent as we are to taking any real action toward equity of opportunity because of our lingering deficit views of people in poverty, people of color, and women—has produced one fact that cannot be denied:

Destiny is determined by the coincidences of any child’s birth.

“Demography & Destiny: College Readiness in New York,” Norm Fruchter

“AISR’s findings were grim. The city’s high school graduates’ college readiness rates were overwhelmingly correlated with their neighborhoods’ racial composition, income and related socio-economic factors. For example, the higher the mothers’ level of education in any city neighborhood, the higher the college readiness rates of the students residing in that neighborhood. Unemployment and single motherhood, conversely, were negatively correlated—the higher the rates of unemployment and single motherhood in any city neighborhood, the lower the college readiness rates of the students residing in that neighborhood. Moreover, the mean income in each neighborhood was very highly correlated with students’ college readiness scores – the lower any neighborhood’s mean income, the lower the college readiness scores of the students living in that neighborhood.”

“Studies Suggest Economic Inequity Is Built Into, and Worsened by, School Systems,” P. L. Thomas

Is Poverty Destiny?: Ideology v. Evidence in Education Reform,” P. L. Thomas