Education is a complex and nuanced issue, and advocates on all sides need to be mindful not to overreach. Supporters of school choice sometimes overpromise the benefits of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, leaving them open to attack. On the other side, school choice critics sometimes appeal to a mythical concept of the common/public school that never really existed.
Edward B. Fiske, a former New York Times education editor, and Helen F. Ladd, a professor at Duke University, demonstrate exactly this in a recent op-ed in the News & Observer. Fiske and Ladd keep their arguments simple: school choice is unconstitutional because it “destroys” the state’s ability to provide a free uniform system of education that is, as they say, “accessible to all students.”
Their argument may sound reasonable to a school choice critic, but the reasoning is grounded in mythology. Understanding this mythology exposes the underlying contradictions with the opposition to school choice.
First, it is a myth that common/public schools are open to every student. Students are assigned to schools and those schools are free to reject any student not within the school zone.
As Slate columnist Mathew Yglesias recently noted, the word “public” in public school really only means the school is government-owned and operated. He correctly observes that “a public school is by no means a school that’s open to the public in the sense that anyone can go there.”
Yglesias isn’t a school choice fanatic but he isn’t blind to the results of a zone-based attendance policy. The result turns neighborhood schools into a “system of exclusion.”
You don’t have to look hard to see what he means. Last week, a wealthy district sought permission to secede from the poorer portions of the East Baton Rouge Parish. In Missouri, opponents of school choice in both the rich and poor districts work together to keep low-income (mostly minority) students from transferring to more affluent, higher-performing schools. Around the U.S., parents find themselves in trouble with the law for sending their children to schools outside of their attendance zone. Some of these parents are even forced to pay more in tuition for “stealing” free public education than a local would pay in taxes to support the same public school.
Head to any major city around the country and you will find plenty of parents of school-age children who find themselves on the wrong side of the attendance zone boundary. Liberal pundit Jonathan Chait says these results are “insanely right-wing.” His insult aside, he’s entitled to his anger over the unintended consequences of school zoning provisions.
Not all public schools require the correct zip code for admission. IB and magnet schools abound and they are allowed to set their own admissions standards. There are even special public schools for “profoundly gifted” students where students must rank in the 99.9th percentile to be admitted.
This diversity of public school offerings hints at the next contradiction with Fiske and Ladd’s argument. If voucher schools and private schools harm the ability of the common school to educate students, how come public alternative, magnet, career academies and schools for children with special needs don’t? Every child that enrolls in a magnet, gifted, vocational or special needs school takes as much, if not more, resources from the local neighborhood school as a charter or voucher school would.
The same question applies to concerns about constitutionality. If vouchers and charter schools are unconstitutional because of a “free uniform common/public school” provision, why aren’t magnet, career academies, alternative schools and schools for special needs students? They may be free (so long as you pay taxes within the area) but there is nothing uniform about them as they each represent various approaches to education.
Once these contradictions are peeled back, the opposition to school choice appears more concerned about who controls education. That’s a fine debate to have — if we are honest about it first. Unfortunately, honesty means telling parents they should have little, to no, say in their child’s education. That is a more difficult argument to make.
Public schools don’t serve every child uniformly because one-size-fits all never worked well. As a result, public education evolved. It added IB, magnet schools, gifted academies, career and vocational programs, alternative schools and schools for special needs children. These are all efforts to diversify educational offerings for students of different needs and abilities. They are functionally no different – in terms of parental choice and the financial impact to traditional schools – than vouchers and charter schools. In the end, vouchers and charter schools are simply another evolutionary step towards customizing education based on the needs of the student.