The elusive promise of ‘choice’

School-choice advocates are cheering the nomination of Betsy DeVos to head Trump’s Department of Education, while public school proponents are worried about what her leadership would mean for the future of public education.

What is it about charter schools and voucher systems, which DeVos unabashedly supports, that makes them so divisive?

Why do many conservatives believe so strongly in them, while many liberals fear and oppose them? I find this issue fascinating, since so many teachers I know have worked in public, private and charter schools. Every year, someone I know is moving from charter to public, public to private, private back to public and so on.

If many of the same teachers are cycling through this revolving door of schools, what makes any kind of school any different? Why prefer one system over the other?

For conservatives, it comes down to incentives. They want vouchers and charter schools because they believe more choices will lead to better schools, like more competition leads to better cars. Administrators and teachers will have to up their game to attract students.

For liberals, there are multiple issues: Who will look out for the underserved students, the ones whose parents won’t apply for vouchers or enroll them in the best charters? And what would deregulation do to the hard-won gains in teachers’ contracts, like livable wages (in some states)?

There is evidence that school competition leads to better outcomes for students, especially in places like New Orleans, where a citywide system of charters is clearly outperforming the pre-Katrina public school district.

But there is also evidence of charter schools that operate without oversight, take tax dollars without producing results, and shut down mid-year leaving students and teachers stranded.

Is there a way to harness the beneficial forces of competition, while learning lessons from the experiments that have failed? Can we have the best of both worlds?

In the best-case scenario, competition can promote innovation, which can be shared with all schools. The structure of charter schools encourages experimentation — they are not tradition-bound, so they can immerse kids in music or the environment or civic activism or humanities. (Their biggest failing, in fact, is that they mostly mimic traditional public schools, but with longer days and stricter discipline.)

But in order to make the competition fair, we need to ensure that traditional public schools have a level playing field with these new contenders.

First, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars accept any and all students — regardless of race, gender, income or disability. If vouchers do not cover the whole tuition, the school needs to waive the rest for low-income or special ed students who apply.

Second, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars administer the same assessments to their students, so we can judge their performance apples to apples.

Third, let’s free public schools from some of their bureaucracy, while adding enough accountability to charters to make sure they’re not fly-by-night schemes.

School choice and traditional public schools have co-existed for decades already. Let’s try to pull the best from both systems, rather than trying to promote one at the expense of the other. Then both sides can have something to cheer about.