If you watched Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing to become the next education secretary, you also heard a fair amount about her favorite education policy: “school choice” programs. DeVos has spent the bulk of her career advocating for this through political organizations like the American Federation of Children. It essentially led off her opening statement, when she said, “Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious or any combination thereof.”
At a basic level, that’s unobjectionable enough — what’s not to like about giving families flexibility about the sort of education their kids get? At that level, school choice is a banal, Very Good Thing. It’s the sort of policy tool that seems as though it could solve all sorts of problems.
But DeVos’s paean to school choice obscures a problem: Like any tool, policies work best when they’re actually tailored to the task at hand. When it comes to U.S. education policy, the task is supporting equitable opportunities and higher achievement for traditionally underserved students. That’s not quite the same thing as providing families with educational alternatives.
This distinction matters. When policymakers have launched enthusiastically into expanding school choice programs for choice’s sake — that is, without serious quality controls or ongoing oversight — these programs have not been good for vulnerable children. This is a stable finding. For these kids, the low-accountability charter school, voucher or virtual/online school choice programs that DeVos favors don’t usually spontaneously create a bevy of new high-quality school options for these kids. In Michigan, particularly in Detroit, where DeVos’s influence has been determinative for school reforms, accountability and achievement remain weak. Reporting by the Detroit Free Press showed that a lack of legal accountability in the state’s charter schools had allowed wasteful spending, including some eye-popping examples: One charter administrator was given a $520,000 severance package, all in taxpayer money; a charter school in the township of Pittsfield awarded jobs and millions of dollars in business to the founder’s family.
Asked in her hearing about Michigan’s charters, DeVos said, “Actually I believe that there’s a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan with regard to charter schools, and the notion that there hasn’t been accountability is just wrong,” adding that it’s “false news.” (In 2016, the DeVos family devoted millions to stopping a measure that would have increased oversight of Detroit charter schools.)
Fortunately, school choice programs can be much brighter, better and bolder than DeVos’s limited vision. Cities like Boston, New York — where I taught first grade in a charter school — Newark and Washington — where my two children attend a charter — have used school choice policies to give low- and middle-income families more educational options. This can also foster more diverse schools in redeveloping cities with growing populations, where neighborhood school enrollments often track the real estate market. In many of these communities, privileged families fight equitable housing, zoning and school enrollment policies tooth and nail. School choice programs — usually charter schools — are one of the ways to expand neighborhood-blind “open enrollment” policies for students whose parents cannot afford to purchase access to high-quality schools through their rent or mortgages.
But, critically, these cities don’t treat the availability of expanded educational options — or even racial or socioeconomic diversity — as ends. Rather, they incorporate significant public oversight to ensure that these options are high-quality. That helps their school choice programs support integration and equity alike. Charter schools in these cities pace the nation when it comes to raising student achievement.
It’s no accident that these cities have developed school choice programs that produce these outcomes. That was their goal! These are progressive communities that have intentionally created policies with the needs of underserved students in mind.
Unfortunately, it will be hard to keep a nuanced view of school choice programs as the Trump administration rounds into view. Indeed, the incoming president’s signature scorn and divisiveness appear likely to define the next four years in Washington. As his standard-bearer on education issues, DeVos will inevitably find her own school choice advocacy mired in ever-more-rancorous partisan sorting. That is, her support for generic school choice will inevitably provoke more left-wing opposition to the entire slate of school choice policies. This, in turn, will make it difficult for progressive education reformers to garner support for choice programs that reliably work for children.
School choice is just a tool. When choice programs are well-designed, they can give students an option to attend schools outside the neighborhoods where their families can afford to live. When they’re carefully monitored by the public, choice programs can ensure that these options aren’t just options — they’re opportunities.