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Everyone loves “choice,” right?

In a country where in a single year there are more than 100 new choices for what to use to brush your teeth, it stands to reason that maximizing “choice” might be a goal for all kinds of enterprises.

With that in mind, this week brought us “National School Choice Week” with its recurring theme that “parents should be empowered to choose the best educational environments for their children.”

In their reporting of a School Choice Week kickoff event in Houston, libertarians at Reason noted that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) headed up the speakers. “The liberal Jackson Lee and the conservative Cruz may not have much in common,” Reason noted, but both seemed intent on pressing the case for school choice.

A blogger for the Houston Chronicle also highlighted the coming together of political right and left, crowing, “Who said Republicans and Democrats can’t come together?”

For sure, Republicans and free market enthusiasts of all kinds are going to continue to press for anything under the umbrella of “school choice.” But civil rights advocates – whether Democratic or not – need to ask, if school choice is about “empowering parents,” who is doing the “empowering” and what they are doing it for?

Same Old Wine

For years, free-market enthusiasts have sold school choice as a remedy for poverty, low education attainment, and racial segregation.

As economist Greg Anrig of The Century Foundation explained some time ago at The Washington Monthly, beginning with the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, “a torrent of money” flowed into “conservative think tanks and advocacy groups” to formulate and promote “school choice” policies in all their forms, from vouchers to redirect public school funding to private schools, to charter schools that would compete with local public schools for enrollment and tax dollars.

Flash forward to this week, and we see the same old wine in a brand new bottle. One of the most enduring conservative “belief” tanks, the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI) kicked off School Choice Week with a showcase of Republican school policy wonkery featuring Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) and their new federal legislation “to encourage innovative state efforts to expand school choice.”

Alexander’s presence, in particular, according to an article in The Washington Post, is proof, “Republicans are positioning ‘school choice’ – sending public dollars to charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools – as a way to address income inequality in this election year and connect with low-income, minority voters.”

So the free market school choice advocates are back with a vengeance, and according to Politico (subscription required), “This year is shaping up as a busy one for school choice legislation in the states,” with “at least 17 states” considering bills to help parents pay for private school tuition with public taxpayer money.

Should those who want genuine education reform jump aboard?

Choice Doesn’t Overcome Poverty

Because of the well-known correlation of education attainment to future income, politicians love to pose education as a “way out of poverty.”

Recently, Eric Cantor, the powerful Republican House Majority Leader (VA), exemplified this convention all too well, declaring in a speech at Brookings Institute – yet another DC belief tank advocating school choice – “School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and we must act fast before it is too late for too many,” according to The Hill.

Mind you this is the same Eric Cantor who was steadfast in his opposition to extending unemployment insurance benefits for millions of Americans – something that would actually have been a way to “act fast” to alleviate poverty.

Advocates for school choice – who are especially well schooled in political messaging – know if they position school choice as a poverty remedy, they win the communications battle.

How much poverty has been relieved by school choice?

America’s oldest school choice program is the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program which began in 1990. The folks at AEI have stated, “Milwaukee is one of the most ‘choice-rich’ environments in America”

Yet in 2011, based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, “Milwaukee remained one of America’s 10 most impoverished big cities, with a poverty rate of 29.4 percent,” according to a local paper, more than double the Wisconsin statewide rate of 13 percent.

Certainly, if a 24-year “choice-rich” education program to lower poverty hasn’t achieved any success by now – and in fact, poverty has gotten worse – how can it be a way to “act fast” on poverty?

Further, school choice programs aren’t necessarily aimed at the poor. As Politico’s Stephanie Simon recently reported, “In Milwaukee, a family of four with an annual income as high as $71,000 can get a voucher. In Louisiana, a family of four earning nearly $59,000 a year is eligible. The federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $23,550.”

Rather than believe the politicians’ prescription of school choice for curing poverty, what’s far more believable is their advocacy for school choice gives them an excuse for not doing anything to actually alleviate poverty – such as raising minimum wages or taxing rich people to pay for public works programs. It also makes it easier to blame someone else – namely, educators.

Choice Doesn’t Work For Education

School choice advocates also maintain they’re on a mission to improve the quality of education overall.

In the same Politico story cited above, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) recently said the week to raise awareness about school choice was about raising education quality.

“School choice,” he said, “puts pressure on our whole education system to improve.”

Don’t tell that to the parents in Milwaukee. Education historian Diane Ravitch recently reviewed the results from that school district’s long experience with choice and found its program had not produced any academic advantages, at least that could be measured by test scores.

To be fair to Milwaukee, Ravitch found the same to be the case for Washington, DC’s choice program, which produced “no conclusive evidence” it had affected student achievement.

If choice was the answer,” she concluded, “Milwaukee should be at the top of the nation’s urban districts. But it is near the bottom. Why? Because choice is not the answer.”

Greg Anrig, in the article cited above, found a study from Cleveland that came to the very same conclusion for its choice program: “no significant differences in overall achievement, reading, or math scores.”

Turns out, back to Stephanie Simon, school choice isn’t always about students “trapped in failing public schools … Fully two-thirds of students in Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Program were already enrolled in private schools before they received the tuition subsidy – and another 5 percent were home schooled.”

Actually, nothing about school choice, regardless of the form, guarantees parents get the kind of school quality they desire. Studies have shown that in a typical school choice program, the private school services that parents mostly desire – small class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, individualized services – will still be out of reach for most parents.

Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school – as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents – or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and provides no benefits of prestigious private schools.

Is Choice Accountable For Anything?

Because school choice often doesn’t yield the benefits it’s purported to yield, some advocates now say better results were never the intention.

For instance, choice enthusiast Jay P. Greene, who heads a Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, recently wrote on his blog that test results like those used to evaluate ordinary public schools shouldn’t matter for “choice schools.”

“Testing requirements,” you see, “hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.”

Similarly, Jason Bedrick from the libertarian Cato Institute stated, “school choice programs work without … government regulation.”

According to this camp, there’s now a standard of “choice accountability” that is higher than any other standard of school accountability. Apparently, in a choice system, no parent would ever be “stuck in a failing school.” Because they have “chosen” a failing school, you see, it is no longer “failing.”

But all you “failing schools” not in a choice system? Tough!

Anyone at all familiar with how “choice” came into being as the rally cry of the day could see this coming from a mile away.

Posted at the blog site for the National Education Policy Center, education professor and former classroom teacher Paul Thomas warned some time ago of the “shifting talking points among school choice advocates.”

Thomas wrote, “In the 1980s and 1990s, before a substantial body of research had emerged, vouchers were heralded as the panacea for a failing public school system. Once the shine wore off those lofty claims – since research shows little to no academic gains driven by any choice initiatives – school choice advocates began to change claims and approaches, attempting to stay at least one step ahead of the evidence throughout the process.”

Thomas traced the evolution of choice rhetoric coming from the choice movement – from “vouchers,” to charters, to “tax credits,” to “choice” – ultimately landing on the current talking point of the day: “Why would anyone want to deny choice to people in poverty, the same choice that middle- and upper-class people have?”

With all this slight of rhetorical hand coming from the choice movement, it’s no wonder that some think advocates for choice have something else in mind.

Writing at the liberal blog site Daily Kos, Laura Clawson recently observed, “While Republican politicians don’t see it as a civil right for poor kids to eat or have health care or a place to live, when it comes to charter school expansion or vouchers to attend private schools, suddenly it’s all about civil rights.”

Her conclusion was, “Republicans say ‘school choice’ but they mean privatization.”

So what do Democrats mean?

No Choice Until There’s A Guarantee

Quite likely what’s confusing left-leaning people about school choice is the persuasive rhetoric coming from leaders in the choice movement such as Jeb Bush.

In the run up to School Choice Week, Bush declared choice to be “one of our most cherished principles.”

Unfortunately for Bush, the nation’s foundational documents don’t say a whole lot about “choice.” What they do say a lot about is equality and justice. And what Americans do have, in nearly every state constitution across the land, is a clause that our government has an obligation to provide an education to all young Americans.

All the parental choice in the world, after all, is useless without the guarantee to the availability of good schools everywhere for all students.

Until politicians and education advocates start showing they will fight for that, proclamations about “school choice” ring hollow.

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