Monday, September 12, 2011

School Choice is Segregation

At the same time that Brown v. Board of Education, the Elementary and Second Education Act, and A Nation at Risk were shaping the educational landscape, another movement was emerging in opposition to these developments.  This counter-movement, premised on ideas of "choice" and privatization, has increasingly sought to undermine the enterprise of public education itself.

The "school choice" movement originated as a means of avoiding desegregation orders, particularly in southern states.  It was one loophole in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.  The states/districts employing "choice" programs insisted that they were simply allowing students to decide where they wanted to go to school rather than mandating school assignments and implementing forced bussing.  The reality, however, was that they had devised a way of maintaining segregation of the schools.

Later, after the federal government began allocating funds for low-income schools, and after A Nation at Risk salvaged the Department of Education and inaugurated a discussion about national standards, the "school choice" movement morphed into an attempt to undercut the federal government's role in education entirely.  "Privatization" and "vouchers" became the buzzwords of the day.

In the 90s the attention started to shift toward charter schools, which are more palatable versions of voucher schools (mainly because public money does not go to religious schools).  Charters schools have become a raging fad, and there have been a number of popular books and documentaries (for example, Waiting for Superman) trumpeting the success of these schools.

All flying in the face of the fact that now there is undeniable evidence that voucher systems and charter schools do not do what their advocates claim they do.  A handful of charter schools are very good; but most aren't any better than the average public schools, and some are far, far worse.  Furthermore, even with non-discriminatory admissions policies and established under a guise of helping the neediest students, charter schools still tend to exclude the most disadvantaged students:  either directly in the admissions process or by "weeding them out" after they have enrolled.  [For more information about charter schools, vouchers, and school choice, I would recommend the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch (a former proponent of these reforms).  It is, at the very least, a much more accurate account of the past few decades of reform than films like Waiting for Superman.]

The reason the "choice" movement has become so successful (in terms of its popularity only) is because it is neoliberal ideology in unadulterated form.  "Choice" advocates claim that competition will spur a "race to the top" (shout-outs to Obama's education policy!) in which bad schools "die out" and good schools proliferate.  But that is not how free markets work, number one, and number two, capitalism has strangled the freedom of the market.  What choice and competition actually do in every case is reinforce the existing socio-economic hierarchy and make it much harder for those on the bottom to "rise up."  Choice and competition in the realm of education is a case in point.  The real effects of vouchers and privatization of the education system, as far as it has been implemented, are increasing segregation and widening gaps.

In fact, the "school choice" movement is a perfect demonstration of the way in which education is used to reproduce the social order.

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