Some people — including President-elect Donald Trump — believe that to improve U.S. education, the nation should stop spending so many tax dollars on public schools and instead invest in alternatives, including charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools.
They say they are part of a movement for school choice, for empowering all parents, regardless of income, to select the best learning experience for their children.
Others believe that fixing American education will require bolstering the public school systems that are obligated to serve every child.
To them, “school choice” is a code. They call it “privatization.”
The education world has been feuding for years across this semantic divide. But it has deepened as the movement toward choice — or privatization — has accelerated during the past decade, giving rise to charter schools and voucher programs nationwide.
And now the battle is headed toward political center stage: School choice has gained perhaps its most powerful proponent ever in Trump, who has called it “the civil rights issue of our time” and pledged to spend $20 billion to push for an expansion of charters and vouchers.
He showed he was serious when he picked billionaire Betsy DeVos — who has spent millions of dollars and more than two decades pushing to expand voucher programs nationwide — as his nominee to lead the Education Department.
“School choice among the most exciting aspects of a @realDonaldTrump presidency, & among the most underappreciated messages of his campaign,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted recently.
The notion of school choice has ties to our nation’s racially segregated past. Many families seeking to avoid court-ordered integration either fled to white-only private schools — sometimes attending with the help of taxpayer-funded vouchers — or rallied for the right to choose which public school their children would attend. That approach almost always meant that white schools stayed white and black schools stayed black.
Yet over time, school choice has come to be associated with freedom, and it now polls well with Americans. No one wants a child to be trapped in a terrible school, and most believe that parents should be able to shape their children’s education.
“My goal is to give parents options,” said Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based organization that advocates for vouchers and other programs that allow tax dollars to pay private-school tuition.
Those who say such options amount to privatization are outing themselves as defenders of a broken status quo that fails to adequately serve children, he said.
But those who favor the language of privatization say that “school choice” masks reality — they say vouchers and charters redirect the flow of taxpayer dollars from public schools, which most Americans support, into unaccountable private hands.
“It’s a direct attack on public education,” said Diane Ravitch, a historian and former Bush administration official who has become one of the most voluble critics of vouchers and charter schools and a proponent of the term privatization. “You don’t kill public education without killing something that’s very important to our sense of the public good, our civic responsibility.”
Polls by the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group that DeVos led until she became Trump’s nominee, show that American voters are significantly less likely to support “vouchers” than “choice.”
“It’s the same kind of linguistic play that comes around the issue of abortion,” Ravitch said, referring to the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” to describe activists on either side of that fight. “They’re really using euphemisms to not say what they mean.”
Voucher and charter-school critics say the neediest children — those who struggle academically or behaviorally or whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to shop around for private schools or provide transportation to far-flung schools — often aren’t able to exercise choice in a meaningful way. Instead of escaping to better opportunities, those children are worse off, consigned to public schools that have been drained of badly needed resources.
“I’ve heard a lot of different ways that opponents of public education have tried to make their deeply unpopular ideology sound more palatable to parents, despite the evidence,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “But however they talk about it, the fact remains that parents want strong public schools for their kids and for all kids, and I consider it to be my job to help cut through rhetoric that is intended to confuse, and make sure parents understand the true impacts of policies on students across the country.”
The disagreement over choice does not cleave neatly along the nation’s usual dividing lines. Some parents of color are strong advocates for school choice as a civil right, for example, yet the NAACP opposes vouchers and has called for a moratorium on charter schools. The battle is also muddied because there are many Democrats — such as President Obama — and some Republicans who embrace public school choice, including charter schools, but oppose vouchers.
The term “voucher” is problematic enough that Republican pollster Frank Luntz has advised choice advocates to instead use the term “opportunity scholarship.” Now, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the District are among the jurisdictions that offer opportunity scholarship programs.
Luntz said it’s a smart strategy for voucher opponents to attack choice as privatization: “People want accountability, but they don’t want schools turned into factories or businesses. They believe that education has a heart, not just a head.”
But he adds that he believes teachers unions and others attacking DeVos as an enemy of the public good are making a mistake.
“The idea that parents should have the right to choose where their kids go to school, most Americans do believe that should be a right. The idea that schools should be held accountable for failing year after year — again, almost universal support,” he said.
“When she talks about what she’s for, and they talk about what they’re against, she’ll win.”