School Choice and Regressive Competition – Ana Clare Smith

It is one of the greatest failures of our nation that we cannot provide an equal and an excellent education to all of our children. As the United States becomes an increasingly capitalist society predicated on individualism, competition, and the free market, the systems of education that are in place have become more and more market based. The United States preaches equal educational opportunity but the characteristics entrenched in our social systems and institutions drive parents, school boards, and politicians to work in ways that only serve personal agendas and contribute to the widening of the education gap.

Exclusion based on race, class, and gender is historically rooted in our system of education. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was made in 1954 we have been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to figure out how to integrate our schools in hopes of providing equal opportunities to all students. School choice is a form of voluntary integration. It is supposed to “give parents the freedom to choose their children’s education, while encouraging healthy competition among schools to better serve families’ needs”(The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice). The hope is that disadvantaged families, minority families, and families with special religious or developmental needs will be able to exit failing schools and choose to enter ones that can provide them with the accommodating education that they deserve. However, historically school choice can be seen as a “dodge invented to permit white students to escape to all-white public schools or to all-white segregation academies”(Ravitch 2010:114). Unfortunately, though they might be less overtly racist, there are still many problems with school choice today.

The commodification of the public school system is a dangerous game. School choice transforms the unequal playing field of education into an increasingly competitive market structured system. Some scholars argue that school choice creates competition between schools, which increases overall performance. Hoxby concludes, “that traditional forms of choice raise school productivity”(Hoxby 2003:339). The problem with competition is that it is inherently antagonistic—there are bound to be winners and losers. Some schools will excel academically and be given funding at the direct loss of other schools. This creates even more opportunities for children to be given unequal educations. As some parents are lucky enough to receive good lottery numbers and have their children attend the ‘good schools’ other families will be forced to send their children to inadequate or inconvenient ones. School choice may be extremely beneficial to the winning families but it has the potential to leave so many children behind. When the government of the United States is officially declaring that no child will be left behind, how can we be perpetuating a system that does just that?

As I walked into to RSCO school choice fair I brought with me the advantage and privilege of not being a parent invested in this system. The scene was immediately overwhelming. There were rows of tables where ‘sales reps’ were trying to sell you their school and a mass of parents undulating around the room—some looking manically ambitious and some looking lost. At first, the choice of schools available seemed tremendous, but this feeling was followed by the realization that many of these choices are unavailable to your child from the start. This could be for any number of reasons such as age or district. If you couple this realization with the fact that all of the school placement decisions are ultimately decided by a lottery system, you begin to wonder what choice you actually have. School representatives who are hoping to fulfill their quotas pull parents in every direction causing parents to end up ‘choosing’ and falling in love with schools that they in reality have very little chance of getting into through the lottery.

In all honesty I had a very positive experience at the RSCO school choice fair. I was impressed by a number of schools and what they had to offer. My experience of going through high school and college application processes helped me to formulate differentiating and informative questions for the representatives. If I really were a parent going through this process for the first time I would have had no idea what type of questions to ask. My liberal college education helped me to understand the complicated magnet school teaching platforms and caused me to be attracted to the cliché benefits of early childhood gardening and community learning. I did not have to worry about whether or not what these representatives were saying was true because I did not actually have a child whose future I needed to worry about. Parents only want the best for their children; the lottery doesn’t care. I cannot imagine the anxiety of finding the right school for your child and then waiting to see if that school is even a possibility.

Hoxby, Caroline Minter. 2003. “School Choice and School Productivity. Could School Choice be a tide that lifts all boats?” Pp. 287-342 in The Economics of School Choice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ravitch, Diane. 2010. “Choice The Story of an Idea” The Death and Life of the American School System Ch7,113-147. New York: Basic Books.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “What is School Choice” February 12, 15 (http://www.edchoice.org/School-Choice/What-is-School-Choice.aspx)

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