Education, Guest Post, Teachers — April 9, 2016 at 8:43 am

GUEST POST: Education reformers’ “School Choice” is a false choice


The following essay was written by Mitchell Robinson and is cross-posted on his most-excellent blog at Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Follow Mitchell on Twitter at @mrobmsu. His essay is reposted here with permission.


A major plank of most education reform agendas is the issue of “school choice.” Reformers claim that school choice gives parents the power to move their children to “better schools,” and gives children a better chance of success. But what if unfettered, unregulated school choice didn’t improve academic achievement, and was really a scam designed to defund poor urban school districts and destabilize public education?

School “Choice” is a False Choice

A new landmark study by Michigan State University researchers suggests that this is exactly the case. Dr. Joshua Cowen, associate professor of education at MSU, and graduate student Benjamin Creed, found that, on average, school-of-choice students in Michigan “fare no better on state standardized tests than similar students who stay in their home districts.”

Cowen and Creed examined the records of more than 3 million public school students in the state between 2005-06 and 2012-13 and determined that there is no academic benefit to Michigan’s popular school of choice program. Cowen makes it clear that families have many reasons for choosing to switch schools, and academics is only one factor among many that parents consider when making the decision to change schools. Issues of safety, quality of facilities, and the variety and richness of program and curriculum offerings also play a role in these decisions for many families. But with nearly 100,000 children now attending schools outside of their “home” school districts, the study’s findings offer a powerful rebuttal to those who claim the goal of school choice is the improvement of academic achievement for children:

“If you looked at say the top 50 schools in Michigan and only looked at the effect of schools of choice there, my hunch would be that you see some big positive results,” Cowen told Bridge. “Similarly if school of choice kids only went to the worst 50 schools we’d see big negatives. But that’s not how this system ‒ or any choice system ‒ works. If some kids are going to some great schools under school of choice, and others aren’t, it’s not that surprising to see on average that it kind of turns into a wash.”

ZIP Codes and Greener Grass…

As expected, school choice advocates disagreed strongly with the notion that choice may not be working as intended for Michigan’s schools.

According to Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, “We’re not surprised that students who choose to leave a traditional public school and attend another traditional public school would show little academic change from the move. Given there are numerous reasons parents choose different schools for their children, we support their right to choose.”

Naeyaert’s comments here represent an abrupt about-face from his previous position on choice, expressed in an August 2015 interview on the subject: “We think choice should be expanded and not restricted,” Naeyaert said. “A ZIP code should never determine the educational outcomes for children.”

In spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, Mr. Naeyaert maintains his belief that school choice results in improvements in “educational outcomes for children.” (Of course, he also goes on to blame parents for not making good choices: “People are looking for a better outcome, and they think a change of scenery might be better. But the grass isn’t always greener. Parents have to be good consumers.”)

So What’s The Point?

So, if switching schools isn’t improving student learning, why are parents moving their children from school to school?

Blake Prewitt, superintendent of Ferndale Schools, believes the situation is more complicated than just increased test scores. “It’s rare that someone says my kid isn’t doing well so I’m going to move them,” Prewitt said. “People move for a myriad reasons. But academics, I believe, isn’t a reason. Honestly, a lot of it ends up being demographics (such as socioeconomics and race). There is a part of the populations that feels the grass is greener somewhere else.”

But the true impact of school choice policies may have more significant, and devastating, impacts on the health and vitality of our schools and public education in general. When students move from one school district to another in Michigan, a phenomenon termed as “churn” by researchers, state aid dollars follow. Specifically, “State funding of at least $7,176 follows the student, whether they enroll in their home district or in a school of choice.”

This “churn” often results in much-needed tax dollars being siphoned away from high-need urban schools (i.e., Detroit Public Schools, Lansing School District), and reappearing in better-funded suburban districts (i.e., Ferndale, East Lansing). In this educational version of “the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer,” we are seeing tragic cuts to art and music programs in urban school districts, while wealthier school systems are able to maintain their richer curricular offerings, making their schools more attractive to school choice “churners.” And the cycle is perpetuated.

The rationale behind “school choice” is the same logic that explains why so many urban centers are food deserts–big suburban grocery stores have better selections, fresher produce, nicer facilities, etc., and this competition winds up driving smaller, older, often family-owned groceries in cities out of business. This leaves lots of city dwellers without cars in a real predicament–unable to shop for fresh food for their families, forced to buy prepared foods, fast food, etc. It’s also why urban centers rarely have home improvement stores, doctors’ offices, dentists, and a whole host of other service providers.

The bottom line here is that “competition” is not a solution–it’s the reason for many of the problems that we face as a society. And schools are not businesses–the rules that “work” for businesses don’t always work in the business world, and certainly don’t work in the public schools.

But perhaps more insidious is the finding “that fewer than half stay in that neighboring district. And the students who most often bounce between schools are the students most likely to be hurt academically by the instability… low-income, mostly African-American students who were struggling in their home school districts are the students most likely to switch back out of school of choice, according to the study.” These enrollment patterns mirror the typical mobility trends found in urban districts, says Cowen. And research suggests that this mobility, and the attendant instability it generates for learners, is one of the most critical factors in terms of student learning.

In addition to having negative effects on student learning, school choice also contributes to the destabilization of schools and communities in Michigan. In the Oak Park Schools, for instance, 2,121 students travel into the district every day from outside of the district, accounting for 48 percent of the district’s enrollment. At the same time, “1,004 young Oak Park residents — about a third of the community’s home-grown potential students — departed the city for schools in other communities.”

It is hard to imagine that the constant influx and exodus of students in and out of the district has no impact on the development of a solid school learning communities, strong relationships among students and teachers, and a healthy sense of identity in the district’s schools. With this level of “churn” in the city’s schools, what does it really mean to attend the Oak Park Schools, or graduate from Oak Park High School, or to be an OPHS Knight?

The case is clear:

  • School choice policies derive no academic benefits for children or schools
  • The increased mobility and instability created by school choice policies has a negative effect on student learning
  • School choice policies defund and destabilize public schools, fraying the fabric of one of our most important social institutions

So, what should be done?

Better Choices

John C. Austin, President of the State School Board, is a vocal critic of “choice for choice’s sake.” Austin asks, “If cross-district choice isn’t improving education, what is the point?”, and offers two alternatives:

  1. A financial incentive model that would provide lower levels of state funding for school choice students than for in-district students, encouraging districts to invest in buildings, facilities and programs to dissuade students from seeking school placements in other districts.
  2. A “managed choice” system involving enrollment caps and other regulations to ensure the maintenance of appropriate levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity across districts.

“School of choice policy,” Austin said, “should be redirected toward improving learning outcomes.”

Better yet, let’s just eliminate school choice policies entirely. School choice is an experiment that we have seen fail time and time again (Milwaukee, New Orleans, Michigan), and yet the reformers continue beating the same old drum. School choice policies do nothing but siphon billions from struggling school systems and exacerbate the impact of income inequality on America’s children.

A far better solution is to call a halt to the school choice “experiment” altogether, and refocus our energies and attention on supporting and maintaining our public schools, making sure that all children have access to a great school in their own community. As comedian D. L. Hughly pointed out to neocon Dan Señor on Real Time with Bill Maher recently,

Why do I have to leave where I came from to go to a school that is not in my neighborhood?

It says everything about where I am from is horrible.

Why is everything better where I am not?

“School choice” is a false choice. No parent should have to move their child to a different community to find a “safe” school, or feel that they have to play the lottery to get their son or daughter a quality education. School choice policies are making it harder and harder for public schools to offer rich, diverse programs in safe, well-maintained facilities as increasing levels of resources are diverted to charter and private schools under the twin guises of “school choice” and “accountability,” leaving under-resourced schools ripe for the plucking.

There is nothing “reasonable” about the reformers’ agenda of more tests, more accountability for teachers and schools, more charter schools, and more school choice.

Schools are not grocery stores or dry cleaners — when schools close, families are torn apart.

Schools are not businesses — when the product doesn’t meet externally-dictated expectations, you can’t simply toss out the parts and get a new shipment.

Children are not widgets — when they struggle, we don’t discard them; we teach them differently, coach them harder, and love them more.

School choice is just another tired track from the same old reformers’ playlist, repackaged as an issue of “social justice” from those who don’t advocate for social justice in any other arena. But the end game is the same: punish students and teachers, destabilize schools and communities, and turn the public schools into private profit centers.