Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives. Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out? For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice? “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers. We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.” As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.
Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life. As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern. I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation. Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers. We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.
Consider charter schools. Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets). While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012. Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools. According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business. K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012. The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.” (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)
Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday. And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.
Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike. But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools. Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings. Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.” (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)
Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools. Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools. Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight. Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)
But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices? And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market? Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.” (Consumed, p, 139) A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place. It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact. The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.
A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights. Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)