Is school choice ‘racist’?

A couple of weeks ago someone responded to an article I did on educational freedom, informing me that “school choice is racist.” I initially brushed aside the comment but found myself returning to her sentiments and wanting to address them.

Here’s her full comment: “School choice is racist in itself since it creates a two-tier system that those who have the means can elect/choose, and choice has gutted the public school system by dividing resources from public schools and draining resources, weakening the public schools.”

What is school choice?

The American Federation for Children defines school choice as any policy that allows families to take their children’s education dollars to an approved education provider of their choosing — whether that is a traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school, a religious school, a virtual school, homeschool, or any other learning environment families choose.

It is all about providing families — regardless of financial ability or home address — the opportunity to access the educational environment that best serves their children. In fact, it is because of school choice that families with less means aren’t limited to one type of learning environment. So, the argument that only those with means/the wealthy benefit from school choice is a non-starter.

In fact, educational freedom ends up benefiting low-income families the most, because it means that access to a quality education isn’t just available to the rich. School choice is also widely supported by and exercised in communities of color.

And let’s not forget the history of federal efforts in the 20th century with redlining and assigning students to schools based on geography, whereas school choice programs have reduced district segregation.

Alternative schooling has also been shown, statistically, to move kids from less diverse to more diverse situations, on average, writes Rachel Ferguson, a professor at Concordia University Chicago. “But even if some diversity is lost in the long run, it’s hard to argue that well-off kids getting more diversity should outweigh impoverished minority kids getting a decent education,” Ferguson continues.

“Given the public education system’s unwillingness or inability to educate black students adequately, we need a new system, one that is built by our community and empowered by parents. That is anything but racist,” writes Denisha Merriweather, founder of Black Minds Matter, a project of the American Federation for Children.

“Gutted” public education?

One oft-parroted argument against educational freedom is that school choice programs “drain” money from traditional public schools and “funnel” resources away from them.

This common myth requires a couple of answers.

First, the reality is that most families continue choosing their neighborhood public school district even when a school choice program is available. Such programs have been around for decades, and participation hovers under three percent of all publicly funded students in the states that operate these programs. Hardly a “mass exodus” from the public school system.

Second, an overwhelming number of empirical studies confirm that educational choice programs do not have a negative fiscal impact on public schools and taxpayers. A majority of studies also show that school choice programs even have a positive academic impact on students who remain in the public schools.

Third, public schools receive state funding only for the students actually enrolled in those schools. If a child does not attend the public school, the school is relieved of the costs associated with educating that student and doesn’t receive the state dollars to provide that service. That’s not “draining” money from public schools — a public school has no right to state taxpayer money for students it doesn’t teach.

Fourth, those who argue school choice drains money from public schools are blind to other enrollment shifts. “The truth is, student enrollments go up and down all the time, even without school choice. And everyone in education knows it,” says Bob Bowdon with Choice Media. “When local economies grow or shrink, it can force massive changes on school districts. Immigration patterns can be significant here. Homeschooling trends matter. Even a rising percentage of empty nesters can dramatically change public school enrollments without any new policies about charters or private school choice.”

Fifth, participation in a choice program is voluntary. If families are voting with their feet, shouldn’t this be incentive for school leaders to make their product better?

Supporting school choice is not an “either/or” relationship — either support school choice or support public schools — but a “both/and.”

Empowering families is good for the students whose parents choose to have them participate in the school choice program, and it helps students whose parents choose to keep them in their neighborhood school.