Voices in Education

School Choice, Race & Democratic Schooling
The Obama Administration has endorsed school choice—in particular, the promise of charter schools—as a strategy to reform urban education. An army of policymakers, private foundations, education leaders, and parent groups that has long championed school choice has amplified the Administration’s assertions with an arsenal of rhetoric related to the purchase power of choice: innovation, accountability, and results.

The consequences of choosing choice as a central strategy for reform are pivotal as we turn the corner toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind. I urge scrutiny and skepticism, and point to the analyses in our recently published volume, From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation. The book highlights the consequences of new district diversity, student assignment, and school choice policies that are disconnected from the founding principle of public education: building a democratic society. We (and our contributing authors) argue that unfettered choice programs, coupled with new legal constraints on diversity, have undercut the opportunities and obligations of the nation’s public education system to promote equity and diversity.

Consider the following widespread suppositions about school choice:

  • School choice policy should begin with a rationale. The rationale or purpose may be political in nature, holding that choice is a public good and fundamental principle in a democracy.
  • An economic rationale relates school choice to a market of options that elevates educational excellence and punishes mediocrity. Schools compete for students, exacting a higher quality product than a monopolistic arrangement would promote. Publicly funded charter schools reflect this rationale.
  • A school choice plan may be anchored in an explicit argument about social justice and racial diversity. Magnet schools meet this priority.
Current arguments on behalf of school choice (and reauthorization of No Child Left Behind) seem notably less reasoned and more reflexive than these suppositions would require. Choice advocates tend to focus on a single outcome as a measure of merit–student achievement–rather than outcomes more fundamental to sustaining equity, promoting opportunity, and creating civic virtues. How we measure results in choice schools as compared to traditional public schools seems of paramount interest here, elbowing aside what I would argue are other, more compelling considerations. We should all recall the central role of schools in a democracy: developing students capable of broad participation in the social, economic, and political life of the nation. As policymakers debate the methodologies used to assess the merits of school choice, we pose this question: Do the imperatives of civility and diversity remain core values in public school choice policies today? And in what measures and to what magnitude?

Our new book, From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation, explores the implications of new policies on choice, equity, and diversity across multiple contexts, including in classrooms and schools, and on district and national levels. We address what we feel is the most fundamental issue: how new legal rulings, principles of social justice and choice, and student assignment policies matter more than ever before. We invite debate, and hope that the arguments and research in this book will help reorient the political and educational landscape toward more democratic, diverse, and equitable schools for students and their families.

About the Author: Claire Smrekar is associate professor of education & public policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University