01/08/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

School Choice Is a Whale-Sized Red Herring

Perhaps the most debated notion in elementary and secondary education these days is school choice. Educational reformers and politicians (an overlapping pair) arouse the public by asking, "Why shouldn't everyone have the same choices the rich folks have?" That's a whale-sized red herring and is neither the intent nor the result of school choice.

I've written about this in the past, but it merits repeating, as this manipulative rhetoric may well destroy public education and irreversibly rend America's social fabric. As the head of a private school, I write with caution and ambivalence because of my own privileged role in the education mix. But, for better or worse, private schools have long been a small part of the educational mosaic in America and are not a threat to the public education system. In fact, my school has partnerships with several public schools, hoping to improve the experience for our students and theirs.

The "same choice as rich folks" proposition posed to poor or working class families is insincere. "School choice" is nearly always a surrogate phrase for voucher programs. The theory is that each family receives a voucher, which may be redeemed at the school of choice. No more being stuck in a "failing" neighborhood school! You get to choose!

Nonsense. The voucher amounts are usually slightly less than the historic per pupil expenses in the districts, towns, or states where the programs arise. Vouchers let local communities, states and the whole nation off the hook for providing a decent, equitable education for all children. And the biggest lie is that you can have "the same choices the rich folks have." Vouchers don't cover even half of the tuition at most private schools. For a poor or working class family, a $12,000 voucher for a $35,000 tuition is simply worthless paper. And most of the "rich folks" schools are fully enrolled, with highly competitive admissions and long waiting lists. Even at my school, where we deeply value diversity and give $5 million per year in tuition assistance, we couldn't begin to accommodate voucher-bearing students. Even if we had the money, we don't have the seats. Nor could most of the other private schools across America.

So what "choice" really means is a diversion of public funds to religious schools (more than 90 percent of current voucher students attend religious schools) or diversion of taxpayer dollars to charter schools. In Louisiana, a voucher program has inspired many fundamentalist religious schools, often operating in inadequate storefront spaces, offering virtually no credible curriculum and staffed by unqualified teachers. Lots of Bible studies, but little math, little science, fictional history, no art, no music, no gym and no hope for the poor children suckered into attendance.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, most charter schools do not admit or retain all students. According to several reports, one highly touted charter school in Harlem (Success Academy) had a 47 percent attrition rate between kindergarten and 5th grade. They take lots of kids and the public money that comes with them, but the success they claim is more about exclusion than inclusion. Worse, charter schools run by for-profit Educational Management Organizations are growing like fungi across the nation. Here too, taxpayer dollars are diverted to private gain. Education is a nearly $700 billion market in America and the floodgates have been opened.

I am not arguing that any particular public schools are better than any specific charter schools or religious schools, although the evidence certainly contradicts any claims that charter schools are better. Charters on balance do no better than the public schools they replaced. There are conspicuous exceptions, but a rational society ought not set policy by anecdote. I also don't intend to impugn the motivation of many committed individuals in the education reform world. Anyone who sincerely works to provide a better opportunity to kids in America should be respected, regardless of differences in educational philosophy.

But despite the sincerity of some charter school folks, too many politicians and profiteers have jumped into the chasm of inequity in America to chase billions of public dollars. They blame unions, they blame teachers, they blame parents or they blame the students themselves. They intentionally misdiagnose poverty as a case of lousy education so that they can prescribe a very lucrative (for themselves) cure.

This stinks, but the greater risk is that the connective tissue of our nation is under assault. Whatever the nature of the so-called "choices" -- religious schools, privately run charters which operate outside public oversight, or online schools designed to maximize profit and minimize human experience -- the process will further divide an already divided nation. Rather than inviting our children into public spaces where they will assimilate, appreciate and learn with and from each other, we are setting up mechanisms for families to isolate their children in settings that share only their particular (or peculiar) view of society.