CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Embraced by parents, billionaire philanthropists and politicians on both sides of the aisle as a cornerstone of freedom and the antidote to “failing” public schools, the school choice movement has a complex history overshadowed by racism and resistance to desegregation, a new book says.
“The Choice We Face: How Segregation, Race and Power Have Shaped America’s Most Controversial Education Reform Movement” (Beacon Press) traced the history of an idea –
taking a critical look at the school choice movement’s origins and evolution, the social and political forces that fueled its rise, and the effects of race and social class.
According to author Jon Hale, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership and of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the school choice movement was indelibly shaped by racism. And race plays a pivotal role in who accesses, steers and benefits from school choice initiatives – and who gets left behind.
“Supporting and utilizing school choice does not make one racist,” Hale said, “but the movement is historically grounded in racist practices and policy.
“When I was teaching in North Carolina, I was surprised by how few people knew the school choice movement’s segregationist history and policy,” Hale said about his motivation for writing the book. “I decided to commit a lot of my community service to addressing the issues associated with school choice and what that means for diversity, equity and how we – especially white parents – talk about it.”
However, school choice is more than mere policy, he said. It is an ideology and a way of thinking that provided new ways to talk about public education and for white parents to assert their rights to choose their children’s schools to avoid desegregation.
Hale examined the political and social factors associated with education reform and its embrace by presidents from both major political parties, from Republicans Richard Nixon and Donald Trump to Democrats Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Hale opened the book by examining the racial dynamics involved in a contentious town hall meeting he attended in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 2015. Organized by white parents, the meeting was part of a grassroots effort to convert Burke High School – a majority-Black high school situated in a gentrified neighborhood – to a charter school.
The debate surrounding Burke High School exemplified what was occurring in other cities, Hale said, with parents demanding the right to choose and adamant in their beliefs that converting to a charter school was the panacea to problems with teaching and student achievement.
“School choice is presented as a guarantee – as a fix or a silver bullet that we’re all looking for – but chances are it’s not,” Hale said. “There is no guarantee that students will receive a better education in a charter school than in a public school, even if they do get in. And marginalized groups who need it and want the best for their children are often shut out of the process altogether.”
Although the concept of freedom of choice in education harkens back to the earliest years of the U.S., Hale wrote that it took on greater significance in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling banning segregated schools.
Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman, an early school choice advocate, predicted that a consumer-driven model of education – a theory reiterated by school choice proponents today – in which schools faced competition for students would spark universal improvement in Chicago’s public schools, promoting desegregation and equity.
But Hale pointed out that Friedman’s hypothesis fails to account for the influence of systemic inequalities such as discriminatory housing and mortgage-lending practices that affected where families of color lived and the schools their children attended.
Accordingly, another assumption with school choice is that all families have equal access to every school in the marketplace – and the equivalent temporal, financial and social resources needed to get their students through the doors, Hale said.
Calling school reform “a celebrated solution to a perceived crisis,” the author traced the erosion of support for public schools to widespread perceptions of a failing system that were fomented by popular books and an alarmist 1983 federal report called “A Nation at Risk.”
However, it was President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that legitimated school reform and elevated it beyond a political talking point, Hale wrote. The 2001 law appropriated significantly more federal funding for charter schools and vouchers so that families could pull their students from underperforming school districts and send them elsewhere on the taxpayer’s dime.
The number of charter schools more than doubled as a result, Hale noted. And privatization became a popular cause for wealthy philanthropists interested in educational justice issues and generated a lucrative investment industry in for-profit schools.
Despite failed promises and mixed results on equity and student achievement, Hale said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic to be a boon for school choice. Some school districts, especially in the South, are investing their pandemic relief funds in charter schools and voucher systems, while some families will opt for homeschooling and remote learning.
“It’s alarming to see who’s profiting and benefiting from this – and it’s the usual people, and the historically marginalized who are left behind,” he said.
Abandoning public schools will facilitate their demise, subverting the constitutional obligation to provide free public education, Hale said. Instead, parents can effect radical change by organizing to improve curricula, teaching and disciplinary policies in public schools. Investing in identified solutions that prioritize students of color will enhance all students’ learning, he said.
“It’s time we listen to the people who want and demand the most from education reform. Listen to what they’re asking for and the solutions they have,” Hale said. “Too often with school choice, we defer to business owners and billionaire philanthropists, and we don’t talk to and listen to those who are going to public schools and build programs around them. We need to put agency back in parents’ and students’ hands. And I think that’s going to disrupt the way we approach educational reform.”