News Release

Hidden Realities of “School Choice”


JACK SCHNEIDER;, @Edu_Historian
     Schneider is director of the Center for Education Policy and the Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His new book, coauthored with Jennifer Berkshire, The Education Wars: A Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, will be published in July. 

Schneider spoke to the Institute for Public Accuracy about the evolution of the “school choice” debate since his first book with Berkshire, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, was published in 2020.

The “school choice” movement has “changed pretty significantly,” Schneider said. “Not in the aims of those who are seeking to drive families out of traditional public schools and into private schools via vouchers, but rather in the scope and ambition of the movement. When [Berkshire] and I wrote that [2020] book, we were very much thinking that the present that we currently inhabit was a decade away. We saw Betsy DeVos’s secretaryship as the sign of a coming-out party among those who spent the previous several decades hatching plans, laying the groundwork, building coalitions, and lobbying legislators. 

“We thought that the time between DeVos’s use of the bully pulpit as the secretary of education and a nationwide movement would be longer, particularly given that it wasn’t the first time a conservative leader had voiced support for vouchers at the federal level. [If you] go back to the Reagan presidency, you [see] a popular sitting president expressing support for school vouchers and getting massive pushback––so much so that Reagan moved onto other issues. 

“One of the things that we didn’t understand we were right about [in the first book] was DeVos’s effectiveness. A lot of people framed her secretaryship as ineffective, especially in relation to Arne Duncan, [Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015]… Duncan was very active with the president in passing major legislation. You didn’t see that with DeVos and Trump. But [DeVos] was clearly using her secretaryship to take advantage of one of the chief affordances of that office: the chance to create new kinds of national narratives. She did a lot to normalize extreme thinking about school choice. 

“For ideologically committed conservatives, this so-called school choice movement was always about vouchers and was never about charter schools. The charter schools were always a way station, a means to an end. Democrats who had partnered with their colleagues across the aisle––folks like Cory Booker, who [had been a] major supporter of charter schools––had been naive. What they had seen as a compromise and lasting peace on the question of school choice was actually a step toward the long-term ideological commitment among free-market-oriented conservatives, especially those with religious convictions and a desire to have religious schooling supported by taxpayer dollars. That was always their actual end goal.

“More people are willing to support [charter schools]. But with the clarity of hindsight, we can see that people who were ideologically committed to the idea of private school vouchers had decided that the American people needed more time to get used to the idea of school choice. [They spent] a quarter of a century [focused on] rhetoric about freeing students from local public schools and empowering parents with the ability to choose and repositioning families not as members of a school community but as consumers shopping for a commodity. They had made zero progress between the time that Milton Friedman hatched the idea [of vouchers] and the Reagan administration, except for the explicitly-racist use of using school vouchers in the South, which didn’t help the reputation of vouchers in the seventies and eighties.”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Schneider and Berkshire wrote that in states where the school choice movement has been successful, voucher programs have led to huge budget shortfalls in education. In Arizona, the shortfall has already come to $400 million. Voucher advocates claimed the program would cost taxpayers only $65 million per year. 

Schneider said: “A lot of people are treating the expense issue as a bug rather than a feature. But it’s a feature, because one of the things that voucher advocates have been explicit about is the need to undermine the stability of the public education system in order to drive people out of it. Any way to damage it, either reputationally or fiscally, is a strategic victory for voucher supporters. Look no further than Arizona, which introduced what they call the ‘education debit card.’ Last I checked, the taxpayer dollars that are loaded onto these debit cards, ostensibly for the purpose of education, can’t be traced. There’s no disincentive for people to abuse the system.” School choice advocates know that “the maximum number of people will be trying to get that debit card. Even if they’re not planning to send their kids to private school, [they’re] pulling dollars out of the public school system.

“The budgetary excesses of voucher movements are by design. Voucher proponents have an incentive to underestimate what the cost of programs will be to get them through the legislature. Creating a fiscal crisis in education at the state level [enables them] to say ‘we have a model that will be less expensive than traditional public education.’ That’s part of the long-term ideological play here, which is not just to undermine public schools––something that many voucher advocates view as tantamount to socialism––or to get students a religious education, but also the ideological commitment to cost cutting.” 

Schneider noted that the public is still in the dark about some aspects of these programs. “Schools don’t scale up and down like a lot of private businesses do. At Starbucks, if you go from an average of 500 customers to an average of 300, you grind less beans, you have one fewer barista working, you buy less milk. In a school, you can’t suddenly turn on only two-thirds of the heat. If you had an average of 22 students per class, and you lose an average of seven students per class, in some cases the numbers may work out—but in other cases, you can’t get rid of a third of a teacher. You can’t say to people who are undercompensated relative to their training that they’ll have to be paid a third less. Then you won’t be able to maintain professional educators. For voucher supporters, that’s a feature, not a bug. 

“Somewhat related and under-discussed is that competition is not as easy to foster in education as it might be in other industries. It’s not that easy to just set up lots of different schools in a geographic area and say ‘people can go wherever they want’… What is competition going to [look like] in a rural community that only has one school? There isn’t going to be any competition. If there is, it’s not going to be an amazing school that challenges the local public school to bring its A-game… It’s far more likely that the real option is a fly-by-night school that just opened in a strip mall, where the teachers are folks who were quickly hired by whatever religious organization has decided to set up shop there… [In other cases,] students are likely getting siphoned off and doing something online, or having a tutor, or parents are taking the [voucher] money and homeschooling—which only hurts the existing public school and the students that remain there.

“What happens to a rural community when you take its school away? [That school] is often not only the largest employer in the community but is oftentimes the community space for sports, art, for polling places, for the general gathering places where people come together. Over the past several decades we’ve seen a decline in public life. How many other places do we have besides public schools do we know that everyone is welcome and that serve so many functions?”