In the propaganda of National School Choice Week, remember that the real meaning of “school choice” is lower teacher salaries.

How can a word convey a wonderfully positive sense in one context but mean something immoral and hateful in another?  If you’re an archetypal right-winger, it can happen if the word is “choice,” which for some reason means a good thing to people on the right when it comes to education, but not when it comes to a woman’s right to control her own body.

I’ll postpone my consideration of what choice means in the area of reproductive rights until a later OpEdge column.  I want to focus instead on “choice” in education, since this week,  January 23-29, 2011,  is National School Choice Week, a collection of local events under a national public relations rubric sponsored by an ad hoc organization representing and funded by a large number of right-wing and Republic organizations, plus business associations of charter schools (AKA for-profit or non-profit-run-like-a-business private schools operating with public money), religious school organizations and some right-leaning religious organizations. 

National School Choice Week proclaims itself for a wide tent of objectives that include, as the organizers put it, “charter school growth and success, universal vouchers and tuition tax credits, corralling out-of-control spending, or union accountability…” saying that “each is equally important and all should plan to be a part of this special week.”

What all these initiatives have in common is they take money from public school districts and give it to private entities.  Now while I support the right of people to select private schools, I don’t see why taxpayers should pay for it.

When you hear what will likely be an endless barrage of local and national publicity about “National School Choice Week” or learn about the laws now being proposed in many states to give parents school vouchers, keep these facts in mind:

  • Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance in school and standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job).  For example, a recent Stanford University study found that the math performance of 46% of charter schools is indistinguishable from public schools, 17% had substantially higher scores and 37% of charter schools had substantially lower scores than their public school equivalents.
  • Private schools are able to kick out or not accept disruptive students, underperforming students or those with disabilities, whereas the public schools must try to educate these students.  The fact that we ask public schools to educate these “hard cases,” leads to a lower overall performance record of public schools.  Net out these “hard cases,” and I think we’ll find that most public school districts do a good job of educating their students.  But voucher programs and charter schools take funds from the public school system and so make it much harder for public schools to meet the higher standards and more rigorous goals that our society places on them by making public schools educate these “hard cases.”
  • Public schools are large organizations that have the resources to address a wide range of challenges.  Only a public system can have magnet programs and schools for languages, performing arts, math and science, vocational training (which means training in skills needed for some of the more than 70% of all jobs that do not require a traditional college education) and gifted children.   The ability to offer a program for the kid who is great at shop and the one who can get a perfect score on the math SATs at the age of 12—now that’s real choice.
  • A recent study showed that better-performing schools spend more money on the classroom and teachers than do underperforming schools, which tend to spend more on administration.  Private schools create additional administration, except for those for-profit charter school chains that follow the fast-food model of complete standardization, which makes a mockery of the concept of “choice.”  The key to improving childhood performance is more teachers in classrooms with more resources, so the way to make education more efficient is to reduce administration, not increase it which is the natural result of charter schools and voucher programs.
  • Teachers in private and charter schools get paid less money, primarily because they are not unionized.  In virtually every field I have encountered over my years, the best people always tend to get paid the best money (without quibbling over whether Lady Gaga should make more than the great classical music conductor Simon Rattle, let’s admit that they both make more than the average drummer in a local bar band).  While there are many great private and charter school teachers, almost by definition in this country the overall quality of teaching must be higher in schools that pay more money, i.e., public schools. Of course, one central objective of many supporting charter schools and vouchers is to kill teacher unions.

The charter school movement makes no sense to me except as a political vehicle for killing unions, but there are many reasons to send a child to private school, among them religion, need for after-school care, social pressure, desire to segregate your children from certain groups or family tradition.  I see all of these as private reasons.  If people want to pay for it, fine, but it’s not society’s responsibility. 

Someone is going to say that not giving parents vouchers gives the children of the wealthy extra edges because they can send their kids to fancy private schools but the poor can’t.  But rather than give poor parents $20,000 or $25,000 a year in vouchers for a fancy private school, why not take advantage of the economy of scale of public schools to level the playing field.  In fact that’s what well-funded public schools have done for decades in this country: level the playing field.  If we destroy their ability to continue doing so by denying them funds, we will create an even less equitable society than we currently have.   

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