School Choice: The Old Wolf in New Sheep’s Clothing

10/19/2017 03:50 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2017

Segregation and the evil twins–racism and inequity–are the divide and conquer gifts that keep on giving­ to the rich and taking from everyone else. Over the decades, the wealthy and empowered have found ways to dress up their barely concealed essential messages: We deserve what we have. Inequality is the natural order of the world. Caring about others is for losers. Winners care about themselves. If you are unhappy with your station in life, blame yourself. Some of you would be better off if was it not for Them.

The latest incarnation of message obfuscation is the vaguely democratic-sounding term, school choice. The push for expansion of charter schools- publicly funded, but privately controlled– and for vouchers to offset a portion of the tuition for private schools is the old wolf in new sheep’s clothing.

Equity and universal high quality have never been the goals of school choice, the roots of which are resistance to desegregation. Its latest advocates do not suggest vouchers so that the poor can attend elite, expensive private schools. They do not demand adequate funding for all schools. They do not want to give students experience interacting with one another across class or race. They certainly do not want to end the defining characteristic of the status quo, rationing of quality by socioeconomic status.

Their rhetoric notwithstanding, they have other goals: Undermine public sector unions to reduce their political power, as well as members’ pay and health and retirement benefits; Pander to subgroups to undermine political unity; Undercut the power of unified organizing by offering an escape hatch for the so-called “deserving poor.” Advance the advantages of privilege.

Segregation is the simple enabling strategy. Contrary to popular mythology, post-Brown v. Board of education segregation was not so much the product of individual choices, but rather intentionally segregative transportation, zoning, housing and employment policies. Policy and preexisting bias were mutually reinforcing. Increased isolation was the inevitable result. People naturally trust folks they know and interact with regularly. Economic and racial isolation turns the distant “them” into an abstraction, easily stereotyped in the absence of countervailing evidence informed by direct contact and shared struggle. It is the empowered’s Tower of Babel tactic. Sow distrust and hatred, so that even when diverse citizens speak the same language, building for the common good becomes too challenging and threatening.

However, unequal education in the United States is not new. Historically, schooling has been inequitable and divided between a free take-all comers public system and selective, tuition-based secular and religious institutions.

Expensive private schools provide an alternative for the children of the wealthy to get an exclusive education. Religiously affiliated schools offer another choice, again at parent expense. Historically, these schools have operated mostly outside the public sphere and without significant public oversight. By definition, private schools serve the needs and values of a subset of the population, rather than the common good.

Nonetheless, public schools were designed to meet and be accountable for societal purposes. However, because of the tradition of local control and funding, US public schools have never been equitable. In New York for example, while the 100 wealthiest districts spent on average more than $28,000 in state and local funding per kid in 2012, the 100 poorest districts in the state spent closer to $20,000 per student. As long as the bulk of school funding comes from property taxes, education will never be equitable. Schools that are the most well endowed get enriched education and the less well off scrape by– reinforcing existing inequities. Schools do not provide the mythical latter of opportunity but rather reinforce a fixed caste system. Even within public schools, tracking and some special programs facilitate in-school segregation and rationing of education opportunities.

During the term of President Obama, there was a push to expand funding for charter schools, despite evidence that they increased racial and socioeconomic segregation and were on average no more effective. The election of Donald Trump and his selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has energized demands for tuition vouchers for private schools. Taken together, these efforts represent a profound bipartisan shift in how we think about the purpose of public support for education and school governance, from meeting community needs and values to attending to the demands and proclivities of individual shoppers in a marketplace.

Shopping for an increasing variety of products does not lead to equity. My neighbor has a Porsche roadster. They are available in showrooms. It sure would be fun to drive one, but alas it’s not in my budget. Its availability does not provide choice. More to the point, online shopping provides an infinite variety of products. But more money stills buys higher quality food, clothing, and shelter. The availability of high-quality product choices does not produce equity. In fact, differential quality is an essential feature of a competitive marketplace.

Rather than addressing the structural causes of growing inequity, appeals to market-based education play on parents’ anxieties about their children losing out in the intense competition for well-paying jobs. Similarly, school choice rhetoric reinforces some parents’ bias that going to school with certain others will hurt their children. It encourages parents to take a belligerent, you can’t-make-me, stance.

Born in 1950, I grew up during the civil rights movement. I remember hearing, “You can’t legislate morality. You can’t force people to like each other,” in opposition to desegregation legislation. With characteristic eloquence, Martin Luther King had an apt response to such arguments:

….we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.

That is that sentiment that provided the moral justification for emancipation, anti-trust, child labor and voting rights laws, as well as employment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, occupational health and safety and environmental regulations.

The current crop of Republicans in control of so many local, state and federal legislative and executive branches want to turn the clock back on it all. President Trump, rather than to urging moral behavior and for people to care more about one another, uses his pulpit to bully and to worship selfishness-driven tribalism.

Each generation brings a new Them, but the strategic ideology is clear and consistent: Do not question the structure of the economic and social order. We get the lion’s share. Fight amongst yourselves for the leftovers.

Coupled with the exaltation of selfishness, segregation is a time-tested way for the privileged to remain in control. School choice is the latest euphemism for leaving everyone to fend for themselves in a dystopian world of ruthless competition.

When centrists Democrats adopt choice rhetoric, they abet conservative ideology. They enable labeling of legislative solutions to help people as being about Them, not us. If the last presidential election is any indication, Democratic politicians are reluctant to take on the rhetoric of choice and the segregation and inequity it supports. That will only change when voters demand that candidates adopt a different, explicitly pro-integration, stance.

It is time to bring back the old labor slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

His writings are collected at www.arthurcamins.com

Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins

CONVERSATIONS