Steve Nelson: Real Agenda of School-Choice Advocates

Sunday, January 05, 2014
Perhaps the most debated notion in elementary and secondary education these days is school choice. It is invoked constantly by so-called educational reformers and politicians (an overlapping pair), who arouse the public by asking, “Why shouldn’t everyone have the same choices the rich folks have?” Of course that’s a 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.

In any case, the question about choice posed to poor or working class families is insincere. School choice nearly always includes, or is entirely composed of, 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 family with modest income, 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 unconstitutional 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 dozens of fundamentalist religious schools, some operating in inadequate storefront spaces, offering virtually no credible curriculum and staffed by unqualified teachers. Lots of Bible studies and fictional history, but little math, little science, 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. One highly touted charter school in Harlem (Success Academy) had a 47 percent attrition rate between kindergarten and fifth grade. The school takes lots of kids and the public money that comes with them, but the success it claims 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. The one comprehensive study done to date shows that charters on balance do slightly worse than the public schools they replaced. There are conspicuous exceptions, but a rational society ought not set policy by anecdote.

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 underperforming schools as cases of lousy education when the real illness is poverty. That allows them to prescribe a very lucrative (for themselves) cure.

This stinks, but the greater risk is that the connective tissue of our nation will be torn apart. Whatever the nature of the so-called “choices” — religious schools, privately run charters that 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.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.