Choice: Cheaper Schools for the Rich

By Jeff Edmundson

Choice. It’s the American way, right?

Under the banner of choice, a national movement is demanding that students have tax supported options for education other than their local schools. Minnesota allows open enrollment across public school district lines. Milwaukee allows some low-income students to attend private schools with public funds. But the most radical scheme by far is up for a vote in November — Oregon’s Ballot Measure 11 — the “educational choice initiative” (ECI). Like other measures, the ECI has surface appeal with talk of increasing student choices.

Even some progressives have been taken in, given what they know of public schools, which are too often racist, conservative, and mind-numbing. But we shouldn’t be fooled. The ECI is a windfall for the rich and the religious right, not a path to more democratic schools.

The ECI would make two primary changes. First, it requires an open enrollment policy for all public schools in the state allowing children to attend any school district they choose.

Second, the ECI requires the state to subsidize private and home schooling: to provide a $2500 dollar payment to anyone who pays for a student’s enrollment at any private school; or to pay expenses of families who teach their children at home. The cost of the tax credit would be met by schools districts remitting $3000 to the state per child leaving the public schools.

Ominously, no new regulation of “non-government” schools is allowed without a state-wide referendum.

Before analyzing the pilferage behind these seemingly progressive ideas, I should say that to hate ECI is not to love the public schools. In Oregon as elsewhere, there is too much bureaucracy and too little control by either teachers or the community. In many cases, there is a depressing sameness about the schools, frozen by a bureaucratic inertia that has frustrated those of us trying to transform the schools. Students are also frustrated, and respond by disrupting, failing, and dropping out.

Even in Portland, however, there is some variety of programs at both the high school and elementary levels, and students may apply to any school in the district. Few would object to this kind of choice, if the schools were truly equal and transportation were available to all. Further, many would not object to a broader policy of choice among all public schools, if there were fair and equitable funding of all schools. The reality, however, is that some districts are much richer than others. The ECI would create powerful incentives to vote down school levies, while sending one’s children to a wealthier district. Heck, if the ECI passed, I would put my kid into the affluent Lake Oswego schools as fast as you could say “something for nothing.”

But the “choice initiative” is not primarily targeted at broadening choice in public schools. Its main point is to help pay for private school tuition, with public dollars. But here’s the rub. Taxpayer dollars will go to the private schools, but not all children will be able to, because the private schools will get to select who they want to admit.

Private schools will admit the brightest, the most motivated, the easiest to educate, the best athletes. They won’t have to admit handicapped children, or those from troubled homes, or kids with drug problems, or anybody else they don’t want to deal with. But the public schools will still have to educate them – and these students are much more expensive to educate than others.

Under the ECI, as the proportion of hard-to-educate kids increased, the amount of money available would drop, and the quality of education for all would suffer. This deterioration would drive still more kids out of the public schools into private schools, until the public schools became little more than a dumping ground for those society has abandoned.

The good private schools would become schools for the well-to -do, even more than they are today. The proponents of the ECI claim that a school can run on the $2500 per student tax credit. Perhaps, if you like crowded shacks and teachers paid fast-food wages. But there is no way to run a quality program on $2500 per student without outside, usually church, support. The good private, non-religious schools in Oregon cost over $5000 per year, and they still have to do substantial fundraising. The only people that can afford that are the rich. Under the ECI, more schools for the rich and upper middle class would open, since such families would have half the cost paid.

But the poor, who couldn’t afford the extra $2500 beyond the tax credit, would be stuck in the public school dumping ground.

Our only other choice, and the other agenda hidden in the proponents’ talk of “non-government” schools, would be to attend and thus to provide taxpayer support for the church-supported schools. Many of these are likely to be conservative, fundamentalist Christian schools, which would teach dogma, intolerance, and fanaticism instead of probing the real world. I do not want my tax dollars going to such schools, any more than I want my dollars going to subsidize the schools of the rich.

The proponents of ECI (and some of the biggest financial supporters of it are rich businessman) claim that competition will force schools to improve or lose all their students. But those of us who pay attention to real competition in the real United States know that what competition in a capitalist system does best is expand inequality – after all, the competitive 80’s saw the gap between the rich and the poor grow into the widest in history. Witness, too, the wonders of competition in the health care system – which is the most expensive in the world, but which leaves the U.S. with the highest infant mortality rate among industrialized nations.

And what kind of schools will this competitive market create? Caring, democratic, humane schools? Or schools bursting with innovation, as suggested by the proponents of ECI? Not likely. Rather, the most creativity will be plowed into advertising, for in a competitive market, the first job is to attract customers (students). In order to compete for students, all schools, public and private, will have to spend money on public relations – leaving less for the classroom.

We have an example to consider: the for-profit technical schools, many of which spend heavily on advertising, make grandiose promises about employment, and provide inferior training, all subsidized by federal loans. With such a model, greedy con artists would find irresistible ECI’s much larger pot of money.

The proponents of the ECI contend that it would give to frustrated parents control over education through a myriad of choices in the marketplace. The reality is that the choices are still in the hands of school operators. Parents as passive consumers would have no more control over the schools than car buyers have over the design of cars.

The result of the “educational choice” initiative would be the development of a two-track system of education: quality education for those with money, and poor education (or brainwashing) for those without. It would more deeply segregate schools by race and class. “Choice” is a scam, and those who want truly progressive change in schools must look elsewhere.

An Agenda for Democratic Schools

A true progressive agenda for the schools must focus on real popular power rather than the bogus power offered by the entrepreneurs of ECI. Such an approach would start with more democratic community and teacher control of schools. For example, both Chicago and Los Angeles are experimenting with different forms of elected school management committees that include community, teacher, and student representatives. Such committees have the potential to design schools that truly meet the needs of students in the local community, rather than the needs of bureaucrats to standardize and stifle.

Another critical change is the abandonment of ability grouping, or “tracking.” This practice of grouping students of supposedly like abilities, practiced from grade school through high school in many areas, has some horrific effects. It teaches most kids that they are just not as smart as others, and therefore that they can not expect to get as far in life. Too, it teaches most kids less, because the “lower ability” groups are taught less challenging material, on the assumption that they can’t handle anything more. Tracking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, because students who are challenged less achieve less. Not surprisingly, given the white middle-class bias of tests, children of color and of poor/working class backgrounds tend to be clustered in “lower-ability” groups. The building of a multiracial, multiclass movement to abolish tracking should be among the first tasks of those interested in more democratic schools.

Next, a progressive education movement could work to break down the big schools into more human-scale sizes. The big schools, which have as many as 2000 students, were designed to mass-produce obedient workers for the factories. If our goal instead is to encourage the development of thoughtful, democratic human beings, we should create small schools within schools. Each small school would have a team of teachers working closely with a group of students, thus allowing the development of trust and the treatment of students as individuals rather than ID numbers.

Finally, we must demand a different curriculum. Rather than the usual approach of memorizing facts and word lists, a democratic curriculum would be based on understanding and changing the real world the students live in. It would draw on their own experiences, it would teach them to think systematically and critically about those experiences, it would empower them to change their society, it would be truly multicultural, drawing on the ideas and accomplishments of many peoples.

A movement for more democratic schools could unite races and classes in a way that could have far-reaching effects. The ECI, on the other hand, would only divide working people into warring groups, fighting over the crumbling ruins of a ravaged school system.

Jeff Edmundson is a teacher at Marshall High School in Portland, OR.