Debunking myths about school choice


By Al Ramirez

It seems that every politician — left or right — speaks of choice as some sacrosanct policy that holds the key to improving the nation’s schools. Consider some of these myths in the messages promoting charter schools, vouchers, and open enrollment.

1) Public schools are bad but private schools and charter schools are good. The facts are that, like public schools, private schools and charter schools have good, mediocre, and poor-performing schools. There is no secret sauce in all private schools and the same applies to all charter schools. Do parents in a high-wealth community think their public high school is no good?

2) The marketplace will magically sort out the bad schools from the good ones. The market has done a pretty good job of bringing us choice in fast food. But sometimes it doesn’t work well for public services. And choice advocates rarely talk about market failure, which is a routine part of markets.

3) School vouchers lead to a better education for poor and minority children. We have decades of experience with voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. If voucher programs were doing a great job with these children, it would be announced in screaming headlines by the Wall Street Journal.

4) Private schools will welcome voucher students with open arms. Most private schools exist to educate “their” children. Additionally, many private school leaders know that once government money shows up it will quickly be followed by government regulation. Just ask any private college president.

5) Charter schools are public schools that are open to all. Not exactly. In too many cases charter schools are cherry picking students who cost less to educate or who will produce good test scores. Many schools use an air of exclusivity to market themselves. We can even see cases of crypto-religious charter schools where students, staff, and the governing board all happen to attend the same weekly religious services.

6) School choice is all about education. Not really; it is also about politics. It is about decentralizing the public education system as a means to diminish the power of teacher unions. These organizations contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns at the local, state and national levels — no surprise, at a rate of about 9-to-1, Democrat to Republican.

Politicians on the political right and left often sell school choice and vouchers on the backs of poor Black and Latino children. But they know not to talk about substantive education issues that affect these children like the one reported by the Civil Rights Project: “Based on evidence from several important measures of segregation, the Civil Rights Project stands by its strong contention that re-segregation has occurred, and that African-American and Latino students are experiencing more isolation in schools than they were a generation ago — and further, that this segregation is deeply linked to unequal educational opportunities.”

School choice is not better, it is just different.

One Comment

  • Meg Bates

    Nice post! I too find that our national conversations about improving education become mired in political considerations and surface features of schools, rather than in figuring out how to improve instruction and social services for ALL students.

    When somebody labels a school as being “bad,” I always wonder: What makes it “bad”? Are you judging based simply on bad test outcomes? Have you ever stepped inside that school’s doors? Are bad processes going on? Bad instruction? Bad attention to student needs?

    If we’re going to invest in all these alternative school options, we should first try to understand if/what isn’t working about the CURRENT public options and make sure that the alternative schools are doing something different, something likely to lead to better processes and, ultimately, better outcomes that we care about.

    A lot of the alternative school models I see are just old wine in new bottles.

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