The History and Modernization of School Choice
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of school choice has come to the forefront as parents, despondent with the decisions and convenience of their public school, search elsewhere for schooling opportunities for their students. Most notably in these times are the learning pods; small groups of middle and upper-class students who leave public schooling behind in favor of small group classes. These new learning pods are the latest choice in school alternatives, they are not the first, but they highlight some of the greatest flaws in both the public schooling and school choice debate.
The early years
As the United States gained its independence, we also considered student independence to be the norm. During this age in American history, school choice was the norm, and with no real regulations on academic standards, parents could even determine when to suspend their child’s education (with a good deal of only learning the basics of arithmetic and language before leaving to work as apprentices or laborers). During this time, they based school separation on religious and class differences, with the affluent and protestant holding the greatest interest in education investment and thus intergenerational wealth growth.1
This complete liberation of choice ended with the acceleration of non-Protestant immigrants arriving from Europe, most famously the Catholic population. This is when the attitude of what school could be used for also changed. Unlike past generations where the school was susceptible to family preference and resources, these new schools, referred to as Common Schools, now were an extension of American values and as a mechanism of assimilation. Before the Catholic migrants, pupils were essentially all white and protestant, this shared background left no need for social education or assimilation to American values (think pledge of allegiance), but with the growing fear that the new immigrant groups could never become valuable members of society if they were left in their own ethnic/community schools, government-sponsored streamlined education became part of the mainstream.2
In these new ‘public’ schools, they instilled students with protestant values to direct assimilation to the immigrant children. This new integration of public schools also displays the initial indicator of another tendency in school choice, which we recognize today; the linkage between choice and wealth. During the post-war period, despite demanding that Catholic and Jewish students attend public schools, many Protestant Americans refused to have their children taught in integrated classrooms. In response to this change, many sent their students to private paid-for religious schools. While some immigrants also took this route, the expense of school choice limited who could buy into personalized schooling.3
Civil Rights and the 20th Century
Jumping ahead several generations to America’s Civil Rights movements, and the next iteration of school choice debate again had a widespread impact across the country. Labeled as a wave of ‘massive resistance’ by white Americans to integration put forth by cases like Brown v. Board of Ed and Mendez vs. Westminster. Quickly, white families fled their now integrated schools for private white, and often religious, private schools, leaving working-class white and African-American students in poorly cared for public schools.
This is not the end of the school choice debate during this period, however, the 69s and the early 70s also introduce a theory of school choice which has become the basis of modern voucher programs; the economics of schooling. Brought to the popular consciousness by Milton Friedman’s book The Government and Education, Friedman argues that, as with any capitalist sector of the economy, this competition encourages a survival of the fittest. Contrasting this pro-capitalist agenda, Friedman pointed out that education had no such competition, and thus school districts and even individual teachers, could get away with providing below-average education, in other words, the U.S. government held a monopoly over education. Friedman’s main solution to this monopolization was school vouchers, a concept that has been largely accepted in modern times by numerous states and D.C. These school vouchers would put the power back into the hands of the consumer, as was seen at the start of our country’s education development. Parents could now select which school they thought best fit the needs of their students, whether that be public school, private religious schools, or more recently, charter schools.4
That brings us to today, over the past several decades the rather unknown topic of school choice and reform has burst onto the main stage, spurred on by Trump’s Secretary of Education, the controversial pro-school choice champion Betsy DeVos. What makes this period of school choice the most unique is the targeting of these programs to poorer students of color, a group who previously was largely left out of school choice movements. While this targeting provides many in that demographic with the same consumer power which Friedman wrote about in the 1960s, it also creates a new hierarchy of education opportunity, which leaves many at the bottom scrambling to receive a half-decent education.
Charter Schools and School Vouchers
The first wave of this newly imagined school-voucher program came in the 90s when the book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools was released. Unlike previous arguments of school choice which attracted elites and those on the right, the perspective of school choice and increased educational opportunity touched on in the text attracted many democratic state legislatures, especially those who represented African-American communities5. As America’s urban schools continued to fail due to lack of funding from local property taxes, families flocked to voucher programs, waiting months and even years for the chance to get their child into a private school. While this competition of education worked well for some, it also exposed a key fault in Friedman’s argument and demonstrates the first of two major flaws in the system of modern school choice. Unlike other businesses, public schools can not adapt to competition because the funding they would need to compete largely remains the same, and in the poor neighborhoods of modern school choice, there is little room for raising taxes and funding schools. So while some students can leave the public school system, often the lucky ones who have a little more monetary resources than their poorer neighbors, the poorest of the poor are stranded in public schools.6
These ‘abandoned’ county schools now have fewer resources, especially when the state or local government which heads its funding decides to cipher off some funds for private schools. In addition to poaching funding, many of the teachers who would have joined up with chronically understaffed public schools, are now turning to charter and private schools for employment. The public schools and students left behind in the wake of school choice muddies the waters for a student’s chance at a brighter opportunity. If a poor child can not afford or is not lucky enough to be selected for a private or charter school, he or she is left in the ruins of America’s failed public school system, and with the sluggish approach many policymakers have towards education reform, it is unknown how many generations of thinkers will be lost in the limbo of failed urban schools
Similar to many of Friedman’s other ideas, his perspective of school choice has been picked up by those on the right, with many conservatives fighting for a pro-charter school agenda. And while on one side of the faulty coin of school choice students have the underwhelming uncompetitive public school option, many of which may not survive the decade, the other issue of school choice is the lack of regulation on what these schools look like. While more established religious private schools have crystalized standards and curriculum for students, the next generation of school choice, charter schools, often demonstrates what happens when businesses put profit above academic excellence in school choice. In their book Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What's at Stake? Dr. Michael Fabricant and Dr. Michelle Fine examine the simultaneous corporatization and deregulation of Charter Schools, writing “legitimating the deregulation of schooling is largely achieved through the discourse of a naturalized ideological truth about the effectiveness of market reform. On this basis, many business leaders and politicians argue that deregulation and privatization of education is the only alternative.”7 In other words, charter school supremacy goes hand in hand with the deregulation of schools, meaning that two students going to two different charter schools could receive wildly different educations, and are at risk of missing key points in their education.
While there are many examples of this deregulation, the most famous came about in the fall-out of one of the most widespread celebrations of charter school reform. In 2018 one Louisiana Charter School, T.M. Landry College Prep, went viral after several of their students, largely working-class students of color were accepted into ivy league schools. To many, these videos of charter school students opening up their Harvard acceptance letters were the pinnacle of the pro-charter movement, but quickly the other side of this school came out. Students began claiming that their school’s administrators falsified their college applications with fake test scores, GPAs, and extracurriculars. Some students also claim an environment of physical and verbal abuse was created through the school’s administrators and founders. The school was set up in an old industrial building with no structures, classes or lessons and staffed by uncertified ‘teachers’ or classes with no teachers at all.8
Finally, during the year of Covid-19 a new option in school choice is in its infancy; learning pods. Unlike the charter schools which came before them, these learning pods return to the more classic standard of school choice; targeting the elite. Much as the religious and all-white private schools of the generations before catered only to those with the most money, learning pods seem to behave in the same way, despite the veil of inclusion they promote. In these pods, small groups of students pay private teachers or tutors to teach them in an in-person alternative to the messy public school set-up of the present. While it is commendable for those who are in learning pods to seek out and be willing to pay, often high amounts, for better education, the pods expose learning inequalities which once again find the least fortunate students at the bottom. Unable to afford or have access to their own learning pods, many of the country’s poorest students are thus stuck in public school, whether that be in the form of online, in-person, or hybrid schooling.
Regardless of the form it comes in, it is indisputable that public education is failing students this year, the inconsistency of school set up along with the inability of many districts to plan for online or hybrid lessons means most students are learning much less this year than they normally would. But, for the students in learning pods, this is not the case, they are receiving private lessons from highly-qualified instructors, with many students in these pods getting ahead on their school work compared to their public school peers who are falling months behind.
It is no surprise that I believe school choice is not going away, it has been a pillar of America’s education system almost since schooling in our country was formed. However, public schooling should not look at this push from relevancy with complacency. Often it is public schools which are the final stop for the children who need quality education the most, those who don’t have the luck or resources to attend the shiny new charter schools or learning pods. It is now up to the public schooling system to make itself competitive in this new market for school choice, by increasing funding, staffing schools with qualified and competent educators, and cultivating an environment of common sense education which works in the best interest of both students and staff, only then will these schools have a chance of survival.
1. Logan, Stephanie R. “A Historical and Political Look at the Modern School Choice Movement.” International Journal of Educational Reform 27, no. 1 (January 2018): 2–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/105678791802700101.
2. “America at School,” Library of Congress, Library of Congress Digital Collections, accessed Oct. 2020, https://www.loc.gov/collections/america-at-work-and-leisure-1894-to-1915/articles-and-essays/america-at-school/
3. Wisniewski, Mary, “Religion, and Controversy, Always Part of U.S. Education,” Reuters, published June 9, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-religion-schools/religion-and-controversy-always-part-of-u-s-education-idUSTRE75829R20110609.
4. Burke, Lindsey., Schwalbach, Jude., Rosenwinkel, Jack, “Free to Succeed: A Brief History of School Choice,” The Heritage Foundation, published February 3, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/education/commentary/free-succeed-brief-history-school-choice.
5. Rotherham, “The Complex History of School Choice,” https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2017-07-25/the-history-of-school-choice-is-complicated.
6. Vice News. “Charter Schools May be the Future of Public Education.” February 21, 2020. Video, 13:28. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvir2PqkXuQ&t=119s.
7. Fabricant, Michael., Fine, Michelle. Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What's at Stake?. United States: Teachers College Press, 2015.
8. New York Times. “How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems.” November 30, 2018. Video, 6:07. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRewodHw-8E.
Image 1. “19th Century Schools,” EducationalResearchTechniques.com. https://educationalresearchtechniques.com/2015/07/16/19th-century-schools-in-the-united-states-the-common-school/.
Image 2. New York City Inaugural Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. Published 2020, https://www.nycasid.com/.
Image 3. Democratic Blog News, Published April 25, 2015. https://www.demblognews.com/2015/04/private-school-vouchers-rob-public.html.
Image 4. Benson, Thor, “When Charters go to Church,” USNews, published February 27, 2017,https://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2017-02-27/betsy-devos-isnt-going-to-stop-charter-schools-from-promoting-religion.
Image 5. Myers, Ben, “T.M. Landry families aghast that the accused abuser remains in place; authorities say hands are tied,” The Advocate. Published December 22, 2018. https://www.theadvocate.com/article_88ff3fd0-03ec-11e9-bdd3-b362faaf34a8.html.
Image 6. “Learning Pods, Teachers Can’t Fix Every Social Inequality,” L.A. Times. Published August 1, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-08-01/learning-pods-teachers-cant-fix-every-societal-inequality