Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stirred up controversy again last week when she blunderingly called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) the “real pioneers” of school choice. Many in the media have scolded her ignorance that lack of choice that actually prompted the founding of HBCUs, but her comments point to another dangerous delusion that deserves equal critique.
DeVos insists that “school choice” is some kind of salvation for American families, when it’s used more like a band-aid on a number of deep wounds in our education system. Republicans love throwing around the phrase “choice” to serve their own agenda — similar to how President Trump promises that the Republican plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act will extend choice and access for all, when really, it will limit options for poor and sick people. Yet again, we see those on the Right use intentionally coded language to mislead American citizens. Don’t be fooled: just like in the health care debate, school “choice” promises greater individual freedom when its true consequence will be strangled opportunity for rural, inner-city, poor, and minority children.
School choice is just another Republican-backed set of initiatives that serve rich people and harm the poor. School choice options actually make our public education system weaker. They dilute resources that could go to Title I schools — including, perhaps most importantly, talented teachers who feel better supported under a charter system. When I was a teacher in the inner city South, the families I met faced a “choice” between sending their kids to one of the lowest-ranking public schools in the state or a newly-opened charter school that used corporal punishment and was led by a 27-year old principal. For poor families, school choice doesn’t provide much of a choice at all.
That being said, the argument over choice is a distraction from the hard work that needs to be done to improve American schools. Groups that fight for equity in schools or support increased public school services now have to consider the new battle lines Republicans draw when they wave their flag for school choice. You can’t call yourself “anti-choice,” so, in choosing a proactive shorthand for what you believe in, stick to your core values. Is it “opportunity” or “increased support for teachers”? The National Educational Association, for example, states the need to “strengthen neighborhood schools” and “invest in great public schools for every student.” Fight dishonesty with renewed clarity in your mission. To be true advocates for education, we need to build support for restoring public schools while exposing the myth of school “choice.”