The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s wrong with school ‘choice’? Here’s what.

The idea of giving students a choice of where to go school — with public funds — may sound good, but there are problems attached. The following post explains some of them. It was written by David A. Pickler, president of the National School Boards Association and former chairman and now member of Tennessee’s Shelby County Board of Education.

By David A. Pickler

Imagine a state outsourcing the education of its disadvantaged children to dozens of private entities, asking for only minimal updates on the students’ learning and their financial management of taxpayers’ dollars.

This happened in Louisiana last year, when Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies in the state legislature rammed through a school voucher bill that diminished communities’ schools and their students by siphoning off public funds to private, parochial, and for-profit enterprises.

But the Louisiana Supreme Court  recently took a strong stand for public education across the country when it deemed the funding for that plan unconstitutional in a 6-1 ruling.

This ill-devised law—which was designed as a template for other states—was driven primarily by outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children. This law, and similar plans in other states, ultimately would create a whole new structure for K-12 education.

The arguments used in Louisiana and to push for similar laws in other states sound compelling: What could be wrong with giving students a choice of where they can go to school—particularly those who come from low-income families or those assigned to low-performing schools? Here’s what’s wrong.

The Louisiana voucher law gives up most accountability for school finances or student achievement when it hands over the taxpayers’ check. The schools that take fewer than 40 voucher students are not even be required to show any data for their students’ learning. These schools are not required to hire certified teachers or teach the skills students need for higher education and the workplace in the 21st century.

Many schools chosen for Louisiana’s voucher program were faith-based, and it’s well known that some of these schools teach philosophies that are far from mainstream.

But perhaps the most compelling fact is that private and religious schools would not have to accept all students—and could expel any student for just about any reason they choose. We know from school choice experiments in other states that students with disabilities or other special needs are most likely to be denied admission at voucher schools. Louisiana’s voucher schools could choose not to offer special education services.

Re-segregation is another outcome now being seen in Louisiana and other communities because of school choice—more than 30 Louisiana school districts still have unresolved desegregation cases.

Local school boards are committed to providing each child—regardless of race or religion, family income, or special needs—with an outstanding education that will prepare them for higher education, the workplace, and a fulfilling life.

Rather than being sidetracked by school choice ploys, we must focus on our community public schools. We must ensure that our school leaders have the means to make every public school a great school, for the sake of all of our students and our country.