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A 'Choice' Grounded in Exclusion and Inequality

A new book traces the troubling history of "school choice" in the United States and argues that its destructive impact on public schools is just as much about a toxic mindset than it is about for-profit charter schools and vouchers.
student walking to school
Published: 08/19/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. In the 1950s, segregationists promoted private school vouchers to help White parents avoid sending their children to desegregated schools. A new book explores how "choice" ideology is rooted in white supremacy and continues to drive much of the anti-public education agenda today.
  2. Despite Betsy DeVos' departure from the Department of Education, school privatization advocates continue to aggressively push charter schools and voucher programs across the country.
  3. Educator activists have to build on the success of RedforEd to help neutralize the threat posed by energized anti-public education forces organizing at the local level.

Educators across the country were enormously relieved when the Betsy DeVos era at the Department of Education came to an end earlier this year. And understandably so. DeVos spent four years advancing her school privatization agenda at the federal level. Still, even with her departure, says Jon Hale, professor of education history at the University of Illinois, the threat posed by charter schools and vouchers is probably even greater now than ever. Hale is the author of a new book called "The Choice We Face: How Segregation, Race, and Power Have Shaped America's Most Controversial Education Reform Movement," in which he exposes the racist and elitist origins of ideas that evolved into the school privation agenda that has been chipping away at the foundation of public education for more than three decades.

It's a history many are not aware of because, as Hale describes in the book, the effective use of race-neutral rhetoric helped the agenda "function in menacing ways that mask the persistence of historic racial inequality." Hale recently spoke with NEA Today about the evolution of school privatization, the ideology behind "choice," and what must be done to stop its progress and reinvest in our public school system.

You're a professor of education history but also a strong public schools advocate. The book isn't pessimistic but you're certainly sounding the alarm. What was the urgency you felt when you began writing it?

Jon Hale: When I submitted the manuscript last year, the situation was definitely urgent and it's even more urgent now. The most recent attacks on public education can now be now seen in these anti-mask mandates and the controversy over the 1619 project and critical race theory. Funding and support for public education is connected to all of this. 

The questions about our school are very much connected to the well-being of our democracy. So I wanted to convey that, as the title says, this is the choice we have. How we decide to go forward today will impact the ultimate health, the ultimate path of our country.

The focus of the book is so-called "school choice" - the centerpiece of which is the school privatization agenda that has expanded across the country. You make it clear in the book that you can't talk about charter schools and vouchers without addressing how these ideas are rooted in racism and inequality. Is that history generally ignored in the debate over these policies?  

choice we face

JH: We need to know what school choice is and how it evolved over time. I wanted to start with race front and center because the people who use the word "choice" talk about it and advocate for it in a way in which they are ignoring or dismissing race. People will say these policies have nothing to do with race, but they do. Milton Friedman [the Nobel Prize-winning economist widely credited with popularizing school vouchers and other similar programs in the 1950s] disavowed racial segregation but supported the rights of southerners to choose to attend segregated, all-white schools. So race is baked into this notion of school choice so that where you have to start. If we don't we’re missing the entire point.

There's a straight line between segregationists in the 1950s promoting private school vouchers as a way of disrupting desegregation after the Brown decision and many of the proponents of charter schools and vouchers 40 years later.  Over the years, the ideology has always rested, in your words,  "ingeniously on race-neutral rhetoric.” It's very difficult to overstate the success  jargon like "choice," "rights," and "freedom" has had in advancing these policies.

JH: Absolutely. Its always been about rhetoric. Advocates of charter schools and vouchers have been very strategic in how they use language – the "right" to choose a school, for example. They control that rhetoric because when you talk about freedom of choice, its hard to disagree with that. It sounds quite profound and powerful. But when you look at how it operates, it is a racist policy ground in white supremacy. The language of choice allows us to ignore and dismiss the deeply racist systemic policies at play here.

Is the manufactured outrage over critical race theory the most recent example of weaponizing language to stoke more outrage toward public schools?

JH: It is a weapon and they’re weaponizing critical race theory without even knowing what it is.  But they using it to gain control of public schools, because who controls public schools controls the direction of the country.  They’re talking about using racism to divide the country, but choice advocates have been saying that for over 50 years, first as an idea to maintain racial segregation. So now they're saying you can't teach about racism to our kids.  So it's evolved, but race is still at the center without people really realizing it's at the center.

"Typically, charter schools and vouchers are used to define what school choice is. But it’s also as much a worldview of how many people view their relationship to schools.  It’s the idea that I have a right as an individual to choose and determine my own individual course. And everything else doesn’t matter. That’s a toxic mindset."

What we saw in Loudon County, Virginia, is parents coming in and demanding a curriculum. It was their right to demand it and demand how kids are being taught. So again, this lexicon of choice, and the right to make a choice, is full of entitlement that people are using to pick school board members, to pick their teachers, to determine who should be fired and who should be offered a job. That’s tremendous power by people who are dancing around the issue of race or at least talking about it and not understanding it.

While there are some transparent and successful charter schools, many others have been mired in financial scandals and mismanagement. Overall, however, their academic record is mixed. But one of the favorite selling points - particularly in lower income communities -  is that charter schools and voucher programs are vanguards of equality and empowerment.  How do these programs live up to this billing?

JH:  The academic research about charters really amounts to a mosaic of numbers, where we are allowed to interpret and manipulate to fit our political agendas, right? As you said, charters have a  mixed academic record. Still, at the end of the day, there is no research to support the assertion that charter schools are fixing what advocates said was a broken system and provide everyone with opportunity.

DeVos Title IX
Congress rejected former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' school voucher proposals.

Even the best numbers still show that roughly 40% of charter schools are failing their students. That's a very high number.  You're promising to transform the system but the numbers just aren't there. Part of that is the privatization behind charters. They're not transparent in how they go about this process.  We can only learn about it after they close, or after the students get kicked out, or after families are asked to leave a charter school.  The very mechanisms of charter schools sets then up failure in relationship to the public good.

As far as vouchers, I can’t believe they’re still on the agenda. Vouchers are inherently a privatization tool. But we see that, especially in these southern states, vouchers fail because the public system cannot  survive if you have people pulling out tax money for their own individual beliefs. That's what choice does-it eradicates this idea of a public system for the public good. 

School privatization supporters talk a lot about empowering parents and communities, but educators and their voices are cut out of the process. What should that tell people about the real agenda behind the rhetoric?

JH: The real agenda has always been to dismantle the public school system and rebuild it in the best interests of a powerful elite - the business community. So we're talking about CEO’s dominating a new educational marketplace. We hear business rhetoric like “consumers’ and "consumption" and a strict adherence to finding numbers as we measure a product to justify how well a school is doing.

So we no longer consult professional researchers and educators about best paths forward or best practices.  We rely on a business mindset. That's the central premise - 'we run everything like a business because this is America and that's what we do.'  

Race and racial equity will not be a part of that, professional educators - particularly teacher unions - will not be a part of that. Teacher unions are the defenders of the public good. They’re defenders of a system that's not measured by numbers and business ethics. It's measured by genuine student learning, community empowerment and a healthy profession that not only pays a salary that reflects the labor, but also ensures that educators are well-taken care of. These professionals need good working conditions and the necessary support in order to be successful. That gets in the way of an agenda determined by the business community.

Betsy DeVos was a school privatization leader long before she became secretary of education and will continue to be one. It's a victory that we no longer have someone in that office pushing vouchers and charters, but the fight has for the most been at a more local level. What are you seeing on that front so far in 2021, not just over those policies but the attack on public schools in general?

Jon Hale
Jon Hale, author of "The Choice We Face"

JH: The fight now is even more intense. If you look at what these GOP legislators are doing after DeVos, you're seeing a brutal and aggressive school privatization effort, so it's moved back down to the state and local level. That helps explain Loudon County, Virginia. Steve Bannon has talked about this in recent interviews – they're re-energizing the base at the local school level, whether it's over the pronouns students identify with or critical race theory. These activists are not even waiting for November elections to remove school board members. This is an organizing issue at the local level for the DeVos army, if you will. They're showing up in full force. 

How big a threat is the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in adding even more fuel to the pro-privatization, anti-public school narrative?

JH: We're going to see these numbers coming in about so-called “learning loss" and it will probably be put down to 'public schools couldn't handle the challenge' once again.  I'm afraid the pandemic has pushed more people away from public schools. We're seeing more and more families homeschool and online charter schools grow in unprecedented numbers. We have to keep reminding people that the legs to the system had already been cut out by privatization. Teacher salaries have been cut.  We're not providing the per-student expenditure that you need to provide a quality education. It's going to take research-based strategic approaches from the bottom up to realign how public schools are going to recover from this pandemic.

At the same time, there's been a lot of educator-led activism over the past three years that has produced some major victories in education funding and even in rolling back some privatization initiatives at the state level. Moving forward, what are the strategies or models out there that can keep activists energized?

We know what works: stronger investment works, higher teacher salaries work,  highly-trained, well-supported professionals work, better learning conditions work, a robust curriculum - one that doesn't whitewash history - works. 

Becky Pringle at Baltimore Highlands
NEA President Becky Pringle (center) visiting Baltimore Highlands, in the process of becoming a full-service community school, in June 2021. Credit: Moses Mitchell

And I think NEA is putting forth a real solutions orientated approach by advocating for community schools. This model is really reinvigorating the discussion about how we work with our public schools and the community, and how we work with teachers and other trained professionals. This is about lifting up the community to lift up our public schools. 

We have to follow the professionals, the people who are doing the work. They're talking about best practices and supporting teacher unions at public schools - and that inherently will strengthen the entire system. They're talking about coalition-building. So that's a really healthy place to start and it can be very effective as a counterpoint to these anti-public schools campaigns at the local level.

It's important to understand that what a lot of communities are demanding gets branded as "choice" but what they want is empowerment and racial equity. You won't hear people like DeVos talk about that, right? But because of the way rhetoric changes over time, you can conflate the two and say they're talking about the same thing.

So we need to engage those on the ground who just want the best possible education for their children. School choice and privatization has nothing really to say about engaging people at the grass roots level. It's all about dismantling the system and putting the CEO in charge. Advocating for traditional public schools starts with acknowledging that many aren't working as they should either. So it's a challenge to all of us to live up to the ideals of a true, equitable public school system.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.