The U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has equated selecting a voucher or charter school with the freedom to choose between an Uber and a taxi. At the same time, many school choice advocates also claim that their approaches can offer equity for those who have historically been underserved in traditional public schools.
These simultaneous celebrations of school choice—freedom and equity—should raise red flags, especially for voters considering school choice ballot initiatives or elections of local and state representatives who will determine school choice bills. Simply allowing parents choice over schooling doesn’t ensure that better educational opportunities are being provided for all children. I believe that in the midst of the current push for reform that heavily preferences individual choice, we must seek a better balance between freedom and equity in order to create models that don’t leave anyone behind.
At the heart of the school choice movement is the idea that parents should be empowered to select their child’s school, rather than being assigned to a local traditional school—a historical model aimed at general social uplift. Unfortunately, though, equity is reduced to a goal best achieved through personal choice, rather than a priority communities should share and pursue together.
Simply allowing parents choice over schooling doesn't ensure that better educational opportunities are being provided for all children."
While DeVos and other choice proponents forecast education improvements, greater freedom for some can mean inequity for others. As Stanford education historian David Labaree has documented for the last 30 years, parents are increasingly turning to the education marketplace in hopes of seeking individual benefits and social advantage for their own children. Longtime school choice researcher Martin Carnoy, also at Stanford, explains that the education market has mainly been on the side of white families fleeing integration and that it has served to exacerbate class and race inequality. After families leave traditional public schools, they tend to pay little attention to their neighbors’ opportunities for education.
Indeed, researchers found that some California charter schools restricted their advertising to certain racial groups, thereby limiting access. Elsewhere, studies have found fewer English-language learners, students with disabilities, and those with learning challenges in charter schools than in traditional public schools. There is also evidence that private schools, which can receive vouchers, restrict enrollment based on preference.
During a congressional hearing last year about the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., asked Secretary DeVos whether Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, Ind., should be allowed to receive a voucher even though it excludes LGBT families. DeVos responded that “parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling.” Her statement makes it clear that parental freedom should trump equitable access.
“Freedom from” is a negative sense of personal liberty, where one is free from interference by others, especially the government. In contrast, “freedom to” is a positive entitlement that requires support, protection, or services from the state. While many school choice advocates desire “freedom from,” they must consider the necessary government levers to ensure all families can access a powerful education for their children.
Competition can indeed improve the quality of services and products. But if we are to continue to move forward with this market view of education, we must also engage in public conversations about the needs of all of our citizens. We should not reduce schooling to decisions based merely on personal or economic interests.
When individuals focus only on themselves, they are often unable to see when their desires conflict with the needs of others. Students who exit traditional public schools take funding with them, but don’t often see the resulting effects. This depletes the resources for the remaining children.
What we are left with in the current march to expand school choice is neither a convincing compromise nor a sufficiently justified preference within the longstanding philosophical debate between liberty and equality. We first need acknowledge this deep tension if we’re going to pursue the creation of an education system that is both equitable and free.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Does School Choice Put Freedom Above Equity?