‘School choice’ policies are resegregating America’s public schools

A recent article about a middle school in Michigan’s Macomb County closing and going online appears to be yet another story about Covid-era staffing shortages.

But the reporter, Lily Altavena, added an illuminating angle on Twitter: “Many of the students who [have] left [are] white. They fled to neighboring, wealthier, whiter districts, like Lakeview in St. Clair Shores.”

Altvena pointed to reporting from 2016 about increasing segregation in Michigan’s public schools: “As African Americans moved north from Detroit into southern Macomb, thousands of white students used school choice to attend class elsewhere, in districts whiter than the ones they left.”

Key words: “school choice.” The middle school’s staffing shortage isn’t just about the pandemic. It’s also about students—particularly white students—fleeing underfunded, under-resourced (and increasingly understaffed) public schools.

This makes it part of a larger trend playing out in other school districts. In June, the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris wrote in the Washington Post about how North Carolina’s privately managed charter schools—a key “school choice” policy—are used to resist integration.

Burris quotes University of Colorado Boulder professor Kevin Welner and doctoral candidate Wagma Mommandi in their new book on the dangers of “school choice”: “In the hands of unscrupulous operators, charter schools can become a devastating tool for exclusion and segregation.”

She also calls on the Biden administration to stop funding North Carolina’s segregated charter schools—which she calls “white-flight academies”—through the federal Charter Schools Program.

“It is easy to blame [billionaire and former Trump Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos for giving a $26.6 million grant to a state whose charter sector has come under repeated fire for increasing segregation in an already segregated school system,” Burris writes. “Now the Biden administration and Secretary Miguel Cardona own the grant.”

All of this is to say that so-called “school choice” policies—charter schools, private school vouchers, “student-centered budgeting”—introduce incentives into public education that cut against our society’s values of equality, diversity, and togetherness.

They undermine the mission of public education to prepare us for democratic citizenship. Worst of all, they pit students against other students in a competition with winners and losers.

Take this quote in that 2016 Detroit Free Press article from Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group founded by billionaire and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “Education policy should err on the side of supporting parents who want to move their children to schools that are better performing or safer.”

Of course, parents should do what’s best for their children. But “school choice” proponents—many of them funded by billionaires bent on destroying public education—think education policy should accept that some (maybe even many) children belong in underperforming, unsafe schools. That some students deserve to lose out on getting a good education.

These words, from our executive director Donald Cohen’s forthcoming book The Privatization of Everything (which is coauthored with Allen Mikaelian and can be preordered now), come to mind:

“When we make decisions about public goods, we must always strive to make sure no one is excluded. We cannot segment our public into winners and losers, the way the market segments us.

Even though modern life has made it easy to pretend we are independent from each other—thanks to targeted marketing; gated communities; smartphones; and ideological, racial, and economic segregation—our interdependence has only increased, thanks to globalization, limited resources, environmental impacts, and integrated economies.

Our choices affect others; that makes us responsible to others, just as they are to us.”

Photo by Maryland GovPics.