Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Education reform and the folly of school choice

I am a regular reader of Diane Ravitch's excellent blog Bridging Differences ( She writes about the state of US education policy and she is very alive to the dangers of the current US reform movement. In particular, she sees clearly the relationship between "choice" and "public" and how parent choice can be used to undermine the public good - how what might seem to be best for one child is not necessarily best for all children.

In a recent post, she writes about the changes being adopted in Louisiana:

The key elements of Louisiana's reform are: a far-reaching voucher program, for which a majority of students in the state are eligible; a dramatic expansion of charter schools, with the establishment of multiple new chartering authorities; a parent trigger, enabling parents in low-performing public schools to turn their schools into private charters; and a removal of teacher tenure.

The Jindal reforms were immediately hailed by a group of conservative state superintendents calling themselves "Chiefs for Change." The group's chairman, Tony Bennett, the state superintendent in Indiana, congratulated Louisiana and predicted that

"These student-centered reforms will completely transform Louisiana and its students. Students will no longer have to settle for failing schools. Countless families will be able to select the best education option for their unique student's needs. And superintendents and principals will be empowered to hone faculties of talented, dynamic, and effective educators. Armed with these bold reforms, Louisiana will soon lead our country in quality public K-12 education."

Sounds a lot like George Abbott and Christy Clark.

"Students must be at the centre of their learning" is the first tag line on the BC government's bcedplan web page. Without any explanation, these calls to student-centred, student's first and student oriented have little meaning or substance. They only serve to create some artificial justification for reform by the inference that somehow students are not the centre of schooling. Of course such an inference is absurd - teaching students is the raison d'etre of school. 

Louisiana wants to be "student centred" by redirecting public funding to charter (privately run & publicly funded) and private schools.  Both vouchers and charters are mechanisms for parents to receive public funding and then use this funding to choose their private or privately run school. With a voucher, parents get the funding and give the funding directly to the private school via the voucher. With a charter, the parent channels the funding to the charter via their student's enrollment, but the charter is independent from any government or public oversight . In both cases, public funding that used to support public schools that are publicly run is removed from the public system and re-allocated to the private system.

There is no evidence that privately run schools that get public funding through vouchers or charters do better. In fact, the evidence is the opposite - charters often do worse. In addition, school choice and competition between schools results in segregation and stratifications - students with social capital and who can pay additional fees have more "choice" than those who don't and can't.

In BC, student centred school choice comes in a few formats. First there is direct public funding of private schools - up to 55% of what a public school would recieve. Second, the BC government opened up the "catchment" areas of public schools. This allows parents to choose any school rather than requiring that they attend the neighborhood school. This has resulted in overcrowding at some schools and declining enrollment/closure of others. It has led to neighborhood "flight" by wealthier or simply more actively involved parents. Lastly, BC is allowing fee paying programs in public schools. In addition to special sport academies, Bill 36 will allows schools to charge for an International Baccalaureate program (an enriched academic program).

The notion that all students will be better off if they can choose their school is predicated on the idea that competition will weed out poor performing schools or simply improve the quality of schools overall. However, this is not what happens. Competition, fees and choice result in some students going to schools that are enhanced through special programs, better funded through fees or simply better performing due to the socio-economic status of the student body. The other children remain at their neighborhood schools with declining enrollment.

School choice might improve things for one particular child, but the results are disastrous for all children. Private choice leads to stratification along socio-economic lines. In the end, it denies the promise to children and society that a public system will "level the playing field" and provide equal opportunity for every child.

A public system is not just about public funding. It is about fair and equal opportunity. This is why school choice - a market based approach - in whatever form, is anti-public. We should want not just a few good schools to choose, but rather that every school is good.

Diane Ravitch concludes:

All in all, the Jindal legislation is the most far-reaching attempt in the nation to de-fund, dismantle, and obliterate public education. Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana state superintendent, calls this a "marketplace" approach, which is right. With no new funding, everyone gets to dip into the funds allocated for public schools and carve out a piece for themselves, for vouchers, charters, home-schoolers, and for-profit online providers.

Is there any evidence that any of these changes will improve education? No, none whatsoever. Does the Jindal law follow the lead of any of the high-performing nations? No. But that's what "reform" means today.


  1. Tara, great post - this is an area in which I am passionate about as well. I am all about choice for students within a school but school choice benefits primarily the middle class and does nothing for students in rural schools.

    I have written about this here in "School Choice: Maintaining the Hierarchies"

  2. Independent schools in BC receive up 50% of the per student operating grant of the public school district in which they are found.