Editor's note: This latest column breaks down the debate on equity under school choice policies. Previous installments of The 50 States of Education Policy can be found here.
Addressing a crowd of business leaders earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reiterated her call for choice-based education reform policies.
“America’s antiquated approach to education fails too many students,” DeVos said before calling attention to her $5 billion annual federal income tax credit plan to fund choice initiatives. “It’s really about unleashing thousands of not yet imagined ways for students to learn.”
But is it?
DeVos isn’t the first and most likely won’t be the last to advocate for school choice as “transformational,” with her predecessors in the Bush and Obama administrations also expanding select policies, and 2020 presidential candidates now hotly debating the topic.
Proponents laud school choice's potential to even the playing field (at the most) and offer families autonomy (at the least), while opponents criticize the policies as exacerbating socioeconomic and racial segregation.
At the heart of the politicized debate, the question is really one of whether school choice policies are effective in promoting an equitable education.
‘Strong reason for concern’
Numbers overwhelmingly suggest charter schools, arguably one of the most popular of the school choice options, lead to racially and socioeconomically segregated learning environments on the district, state and national levels.
“In some regions, white students are over represented in charter schools while in other charter schools, minority students have little exposure to white students,” researchers Erica Frankenberg, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Jia Wang wrote in a 2010 education policy analysis paper.
There has indeed been “a strong reason for concern” among researchers that school choice policies are contributing to segregation in schools, Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, said. Some even claim segregation levels now have peaked since Brown v. Board of Education, though that claim remains controversial. Generally, however, researchers agree segregation is headed in the “wrong direction.”
“Kids who are most in need are the ones that are actually harmed by choice,” Lubienski said, adding even students sent to more affluent schools through voucher programs often experience “detrimental impacts on achievement.”
In fact, researchers found black students in New York City performed significantly better when they opted to stay in their zoned schools rather than attending chosen schools, scoring 13% higher in English language arts and 19% higher in math in 2015-16.
Unrealized potential for equity
While school choice models including magnet schools and voucher programs were initially founded to undercut white flight and segregation, current policies shape whether they serve their original purpose or exacerbate the problems they were intended to solve.
“At each step in the [school choice] process, there are opportunities for equity to be improved, or opportunities for equity to be hindered,” said William Johnston, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corp. who studies choice-based education reform.
But from square one of the school choice process, when choices are initially spelled out for families, until its conclusion, when cities and families have the final say in student placement, experts suggest the way it's offered can lend to inequity more often than not.
Families living in racially and socioeconomically segregated residential districts with few or no quality schools nearby begin the process at a disadvantage when compared to students from families living in affluent areas with higher-performing schools.
In fact, findings from a 2018 study evaluating the effectiveness of school choice in Boston Public Schools, after policies were tailored to cut commute times, suggest “it is impossible for a choice and assignment system to provide access to ‘good schools close to home’ when the geographic distribution of quality schools is itself inequitable,” researchers wrote.
Right off the bat, black families living in southern city neighborhoods “had fewer such [Tier 1] schools in their choice baskets,” with more competition for seats in those schools, longer commutes to the schools when they did attend them, and an overall lower likelihood to attend those schools.
A 2016 study of Denver Public Schools examining parent preference in school choice confirms the “vastly different sets of schools” from which parents can choose “reproduce” racial segregation.
There are also “stark differences,” Johnston said, in the families’ information-gathering process prior to school selection and the quality of information available to them as they research and rank their school choice options.
“Parents aren’t making decisions that are necessarily well-informed or driven by the desire for a higher equality education,” Lubienski agreed, noting the information available to parents is “not always crystal clear.” What’s more, low-income families, those who don’t speak English, and recent immigrants are less likely to even exercise choice.
And with parents preferring schools reflecting their families’ demographics — multiple findings confirm white and Asian families lean toward schools with higher proportions of those demographics and lower proportions of black students and those receiving free and reduced-price lunch subsidies — their final decision can lead to de facto segregation.
‘Vital’ to education or ‘undermining’ public schools?
Even with historical patterns, proponents of school choice including Chiefs for Change and other pro-ed reform organizations voice support for the potential of such policies.
“You can’t have an equitable system without giving parents some amount of choice about the schools that their children attend,” Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, said, calling school choice “vital” for a healthy education system.
But Magee points out in order to design school choice policies in a way that is, at its core, equitable and effective, the overall quality of all schools must first be “rapidly” improved along with access to information, equitable systems, funding and transportation.
Meanwhile, the National Education Association is calling to limit charter schools and increase their accountability, saying the schools have rapidly “evolved far from the original concept” of charters “as small incubators of innovation.” Instead, the organization says, charters have “undermined” local public schools without producing the desired results.
The debate has even caught the attention of many 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls trying to woo educators' votes, with leading candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders decrying school choice, and Joe Biden and Cory Booker pivoting away from vouchers despite their controversial histories on the topic.
With the Strength in Diversity Act introduced in Congress by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), there is federal legislation pending with the intention of diversifying schools, in part by establishing school choice zones and funding improved transportation.
"These are complex systems to build," Magee said. "They don't happen overnight."