January 23, 2023

Erik S. Anderson: Examining the underpinnings and pitfalls of school choice

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Erik S. Anderson is associate professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. In a piece for LNP/Lancaster Online, he outlines the troubled background of school choice.

When it comes to education, some argue that the ability to opt out of the public system is practically a right. They seem to ask: “Don’t like the roads you’re driving on? Well, you should be able to choose a road that meets your desires.”

The roots of this reasoning run deep. The tree they anchor, however, is rotten.

School choice, of course, had a genesis in reaction to Brown v. Board, which left a door open for segregationists by ruling that only public schools had to be integrated. Set up a private school and you could be as racially exclusive as you wished. 

Fast forward to the present day, and the mechanisms by which white and wealthy families segregate their children from people of color have grown more sophisticated and, in terms of the language used to describe them, more race-neutral. Today in Pennsylvania we have the educational improvement tax credit program, the opportunity scholarship tax credit program and the proposed lifeline scholarship program. We have “school choice” as promulgated by lobbyists and legislators, who often pitch these programs as helping marginalized students and families.

Contrary to what they would have you believe, extensive research shows that such programs overwhelmingly benefit white and/or wealthy students. Works according to design, as they say.

“White flight is not just from the urban to the suburban,” political theorist Bonnie Honig writes, “it is from the public to the private thing.”

Anderson also connects the school choice movement to the anti-democracy element that runs through US history.

The first architect of these policies was, to wit, a Southerner: economist James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013), who distrusted democracy because it threatened the power of elites. And he saw no greater breeding ground for that threat than public education, especially a version of it that brought people together across social divisions, like race. Better to keep people fighting among themselves than turning their attention to their shared economic oppression.

Buchanan argued, as educator and writer John Patrick Leary puts it, “that there is no public interest — there are only public choices.” These choices, Leary observes, are defined by two key elements: They are always market-based, and they always conflate the ability to choose with the freedom to choose. That is, even if you don’t have the means to drive on the turnpike, you still have the freedom to do so — never mind that you can’t afford it. Never mind that your choices are constrained by your means.

Choice, in this light, is a cynical ruse, in Leary’s phrase. It hides who suffers from policies like the educational improvement tax credit program, and it shields from blame those whose “public” but antidemocratic “choices” cause harm.

And make no mistake: In diverting public funds to private ends, these polices do harm far more children than they help. They create the conditions to systematically underfund the public schools that educate the vast majority of children, exacerbating social stratification in the process. Then, adding insult to injury, some accuse those same schools of failing. But it isn’t the schools that have failed. We have failed them.

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