March 1, 2024

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Science It Works

The implications of school choice in the United States

By Frank Adamson, Assistant Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University, Sacramento and author of a background paper for the 2021/2 GEM Report

The title of the 2021/2 GEM Report, Who chooses? Who loses? invokes the notion of ‘school choice’, a term encapsulating Milton Friedman’s market-based theory that if students choose schools, those schools must outcompete each other for customers (students), with this competition yielding higher quality education.  By asking Who chooses?, the report raises the issue that schools may actually choose students instead of students choosing schools. The second question of Who loses? self-evidently addresses the global reality that many students lack sufficient educational opportunity.

This blog addresses findings from the GEM report in the context of the United States in three key areas: segregation, competition, and state responsibility.

Education segregation in the United States

Segregation directly addresses the GEM Report’s second question of Who loses? The historical legacies of slavery and segregation in the United States created racial and class divisions that remain today, with segregation in education having increased over the last 30 years.

Despite the desegregation intention of the 1954 Brown vs. Board supreme court case, Jargowsky reports that students in primary and secondary education are “substantially more racially and economically segregated than people not enrolled in school”. Furthermore, our 2019 study found that students of colour in urban contexts often attend intensely segregated schools enrolling over 90% students of colour. Most identify education segregation and inequity as major problems, but market-based, competitive approaches have not alleviated these issues.

Education competition in the United States

Briefly, non-state actor involvement in the U.S. context usually means spending public tax dollars on self-managed schools (the charter school model) or giving students vouchers or tax credits (again tax dollars) to attend private schools, as outlined in the GEM Report (p. 47). Our 2019 analysis shows that charter schools account for 7% of all schools and 5.7% of all enrollments, while “vouchers account for merely 0.34% of U.S. national student enrollments” and “only 0.02% of families nationally participated in Individual Tax Credits, Tax Credit Scholarships, and Education Savings Accounts” (pp. 16-17). While these percentages may not appear substantial, localized analysis produces a very different picture.

The distribution of the most prevalent form of non-state actor involvement, charter schools, varies substantially across the country, with 57% of charters operating in urban environments despite only 25% of students living there. Within charter schools, African American and Latinx students are over-represented, while white students, who comprise around half of the public school population, account for only one-third of charter enrolments. Over 30 school districts in the country have greater than 25% charter school enrolment, including many large cities serving predominantly students of colour, such as New Orleans (93% charter enrolment), Detroit (53%), Washington D.C. (46%), Oakland, California (29%), and Los Angeles (26%).

A heat map of charter schools illustrates their over-representation in urban districts and reveals the intersection of longstanding education segregation by race and class through the targeted deployment of school choice in the form of charter schools.

Figure 1. United States school districts with charter school enrolment greater than 10%

Note: Visualization produced using data from the National Alliance for Public Charters, 2016 and adapted from Adamson, F. and Galloway, M. (2019) (EPAA open-source). Circle size proportional to enrolment.

The rise of charter schools has seen communities lose their public schools as policy-makers close them or convert them to charter schools. For instance, research in the Chicago system shows that, as education privatization increased citywide, African Americans became increasingly segregated into low-income and uni-racial schools due to both enrolment in charter schools and public school closures. Resistance to these school closings by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, including a 34-day hunger strike, motivated members to create a national black-and-brown led organization called the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J). Led by Jitu Brown, J4J now advocates in over 30 cities for education justice.

Competition in charter schools often leads to student selection, one of the most detrimental set of practices to educational equity. Selection occurs when schools counsel- or force-out students using different strategies, including a lack of transparency in registration practices, hints to parents that other schools would better serve their children, and schools finding reasons to suspend or expel students with low test scores.

None of these practices is hypothetical. I encountered them in countless interviews while researching a detailed report on New Orleans entitled Whose choice? that describes the myriad ways in which charter schools selected students and stratified the entire district. A new book by Welner and Mommandi, released last year, delves even further, describing 13 different ways in which charter schools choose students to shape their enrolment.

Examples of the cost of competition for students do not stem only from New Orleans and the United States. This GEM Report also describes the collateral damage of competition, noting that “non-state actors may increase cost-efficiency by hiring young or unqualified teachers” or that “non-state providers may be tempted to reduce inputs by focusing on subjects whose results are measured, which may matter for their funding” (p. 13). In these cases, the quality of education suffers through inexperienced teachers and/or truncated curriculum. Furthermore, when states allow, or even support, systems with these results, they abrogate their legal responsibility as the duty-bearer for the human right to education, as described in human rights law and The Abidjan Principles.

State responsibility in the United States

This third issue, state responsibility, starts with the acknowledgement that the pursuit of market-based approaches in the United States has exacerbated inequity and segregation in many contexts. A different course for public education provision could include investing in full-service community schools. According to J4J Alliance, these schools would have engaging, culturally relevant and challenging curriculum, educator roles in professional development and assessment design and use, and wrap around supports such as health and other care for students needing those services. Overall, the U.S. case provides an important and instructive example that other countries should examine before scaling up similar education approaches.

This brings us to a final international point about policy, politics, and influence. While the GEM Report does call attention to the myriad actors and political acrimony that divides opinion on the role of markets and governments in education, the report does not go far enough in naming the power asymmetries in terms of finance and access of different constituencies (e.g., technology companies and venture capital funds having orders of magnitude more resources and policy influence than civil society). To that end, I would add a third question to the report – Who chooses? Who loses? And who benefits? – to interrogate how non-state actors derive profit from the education sector and to help us remember that students should remain the recipients of our education expenditures and resources.

At a more fundamental level, the GEM Report could also have more explicitly identified who stands to benefit from different approaches. There is an inherent conflict of interest between the universal right to education and the goal of increasing profit. As we face increasing global challenges, we cannot afford to further fracture education provision by diluting public investment in the interest of private profit; instead, we must collectively deliver on the vision of the U.N. and treaty law that guarantees the right to a high-quality public education for all students.