Understanding School Choice

By Doreen Fryling, Ed.D.

School choice sounds like a great idea. In theory, parents could pick out the best school that suits their child’s learning needs and interests. Schools would compete with each other to bring the very best to their student populations so as to retain and recruit. Innovation would follow. Failing schools would disappear. Kids would be happy. Parents would be happy. Schools would be happy places.

But in reality, there is a dark consequence to school choice.

In a free market, a company competes with another company for business. When one company beats out another, the folding company eventually goes under, and unsold products are left for waste in a warehouse. In a free market education system, when one school beats out another, CHILDREN are left to waste in a school that is slowly stripped of monetary and peer resources.

How does this happen? “School choice” (the genius of it is in its branding) makes it seem like children will all just sort themselves into schools that better meet their needs. What actually happens is that only students who can afford to OR who get accepted to OR who win the lottery get to go to a different school. Students without money to supplement their voucher can’t go anywhere.  Students without transportation can’t go.  Students with great needs (emotional, learning, physical, behavioral) may not even be allowed in the door.

What’s left are bad schools made even worse.  Remember that while a school is starving from losing the money that has followed students to other schools, children are still attending that school.  It’s not until a school is starved to death and everyone says “enough is enough” that a failing school closes. It’s this singular disconcerting certainty — that many children will suffer more so other children can change schools — that compels me to write this piece.

What we have is a manufactured crisis in education that according to some reformists is only solvable through school choice. My children, like most American children (90%) attend public schools.[1] In a 2016 survey, 79.3% of parents reported that their assigned public school was their first choice.  A 2012 survey shows that parents in assigned public school report being very satisfied (52.5%) or somewhat satisfied (37.6%) in their school.  That’s 90% of 90% of parents who say they are satisfied with their assigned public school in 2012.  Data from 2007 and 2003 show a consistency with these numbers.[2] It’s hard to see how this reflects a universal crisis in education in our country.

So, why school choice?  Well, there are 10% of parents who feel unsatisfied with their child’s school.  And since every child deserves a quality public school education, school choice therefore sounds like a perfect solution. But keep in mind that at this moment in the United States, over 50% of students come from low-income families.[3]  This is the elephant in the room.  Those who ignore the impact of poverty on schools are either being naïve or calculatingly uncharitable.­­ The reasons behind their advocacy of school choice are often for their own financial, political, or religious gain and don’t alleviate the larger issues of poverty that our students face.

So, am I arguing that children that could move should stay put and suffer alongside their peers if they are truly in a failing school?  Of course not.  What I’m arguing is that we need to actually support all of the children in these existing neighborhood schools with a different model — be it changes in administration, incentives to bring in the best teachers, or more support services.  The goal should be to eradicate all failing schools instead of saving some children on the backs of others.

The free market may be good for business, but it will cause an actual crisis in education.  When you slowly drain a public school of all of its resources, it can’t survive — school choice advocates either don’t realize this will happen, or it is exactly what they want to happen. Either way, a generation of students that will be used in this terrible tactic will suffer.

Suggestions for further action:

  • Become educated about school choice by reading more about both sides of the argument (starter links below)
  • Attend local school board meetings
  • Become more involved in your local school community so that you can witness first-hand what is going on in your local school
  • Talk with your neighbors and friends about their experiences with schools
  • Contact your local, state, and federal officials and make your voice heard

Suggested reading:







[1] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=55

[2] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=6

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/majority-of-us-public-school-students-are-in-poverty/2015/01/15/df7171d0-9ce9-11e4-a7ee-526210d665b4_story.html?utm_term=.a5d39d3578cb

Picture from the NYPL Digital Library

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. (192). [Four abstract motifs.] Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-3eba-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99