School Choice and Its Historically Racialized Market-Driven Agenda

The idea of school choice has been around for over a half a century. Milton Friedman is often cited as the first person to argue for free market principles in education. Some argue that the vision he proposed for how public education should operate, which was based on the freedom to choose and individual rights, was a response to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision (Aggarwal, 2015). Indeed, in 1955, just a year after Brown and the same year when Brown /1 (1955) was decided, while Friedman condemned segregation he also stated that forced desegregation was infringing on families’ right to choose schools that were best suited for their children. He therefore suggested that school choice would be the best way to address both of these issues (Aggarwal, 2015). Yet, in actuality, choice was immediately used after Brown (1954) as a means for white families to preserve segregation and avoid school desegregation. Choice plans and vouchers were both used to maintain segregation. White students did not choose to transfer to Black schools and Black students that chose to transfer to white schools found themselves to be small in numbers and far from welcome in their new schools (Orfield, 2013). Freedom of choice plans were also implemented across the South to keep segregation intact. Black students were technically able to attend white schools but those who did were harassed, threatened, and had to jump through a number of hurdles to do so, which dissuaded most Black families from sending their children to these schools in fear of their children’s safety (Orfield, 2013). Freedom of choice plans, as a result, left segregated patterns of schooling across southern communities. They also illustrate how race was, and still is, intertwined with school choice.

It was not until a year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and color and prohibited racial school segregation, among other issues, that actual guidelines were set around school choice. Included in these guidelines was not just the ability to make choices and that those choices be honored, but that any choices that led to increased segregation were not allowed. Two years later, the Office of Civil Rights and the federal courts began requiring real desegregation instead of school choice plans (Orfield, 2013). Fourteen years after its Brown ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to freedom of choice plans in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) and ruled that such plans would not lead to full desegregation. Rather, desegregation would need to be achieved through a number of factors, what would commonly be known as the “Green factors,” including desegregated faculties, staff, facilities, extracurricular activities, and transportation (Orfield & Eaton, 1996). A few years later, the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) ruling approved busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods as a means to achieve desegregation.

Around the same time as school districts began utilizing busing for desegregation purposes, magnet schools were accepted by federal courts as a feasible school choice option (Smrekar & Goldring, 1999). Magnet schools were located predominately in large cities. Through specialized curricula and theme-based schools, magnets sought to draw white students to enroll in schools with Black students and therefore achieve desegregation without busing (Grooms & Williams, 2015). Indeed, magnet schools were a very successful school choice option that assisted in racially diversifying schools. They have been consistently popular in communities and have been able to expand in large part because of federal aid (Frankenberg & Lee, 2009). During the Obama Administration, when school integration efforts saw a revival after being absent from the federal education policy agenda for years, school districts receiving funding through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program were even encouraged to try to make these options more attractive to their communities to mitigate racial segregation (Siegel-Hawley, 2016). However, in more recent years some have begun to question whether magnet schools are still “magnetizing,” particularly in a context where racial diversity has become less of a desired goal in these schools (Christensen et al., 2003).

School choice policies today are far less focused on achieving racial diversity than they are on competition in the marketplace. By the mid-1980s, despite the success of previous policies in addressing racial inequality and lessening the Black-white achievement gap, a new era of education reform took shape that was more interested in academic excellence. The focus shifted to standards and high-stakes accountability as well as free-market school choice policies, neither of which centered racial equity (Wells, 2014). Furthermore, as Wells (2014) argues, these policies over time have become interconnected as the implementation of standards and accountability measures across states has almost always coincided with the implementation of a market-driven school choice policy. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 required failing schools, schools whose populations included a majority of students of color and low-income students, to offer students the choice to transfer out of those schools. The policy did nothing in terms of recognizing the root cause of why these schools were failing, which in large part was due to years of being underresourced, and further placed them in precarious situations by letting students transfer to other schools. Families were also allowed to choose to send their children to other public schools if their school was deemed unsafe. NCLB also supported the growth of charter schools, which only increased during the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program provided over $4 billion in grant funding to states for comprehensive education reform in six core areas including standards, assessments, and charter schools. Indeed, the expansion of charter schools was one of Obama’s key education priorities; the number of students attending charter schools grew by 3% during his tenure (Strauss, 2016).

Charter schools, while still not large in numbers, are the fastest growing school choice policy (Wells, 2014). The original vision for charter schools was conceived in 1988 by Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker envisioned a public school where teachers would have the opportunity to use their expertise and be more actively involved in decision-making processes to create innovative learning environments. Moreover, this vision included bringing together diverse student populations and increasing low-income students’ social mobility, as well as unionizing charter schools. Unfortunately, when charter schools began to take shape in the 1990s, they were based on market-driven concepts. Indeed, the vast majority of charter schools today have transformed into competitive sites that families vie for in the open marketplace without consideration placed on fostering racial diversity or teachers’ visions for inclusive pedagogical practices (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014; White, 2015). Yet, they continue to garner support from families of color because the assumption is that charter schools provide better educational options for their children as opposed to the underresourced neighborhood public schools. And while this may be true in many cases, collectively charter schools are not helpingall children, and often are actually hurting them (Strauss, 2014).

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. They are particularly appealing because they do not have to manage the same types of regulations placed on traditional public schools, which advocates argue opens them up to more possibilities in how education can be delivered (Diem & Hawkman, 2019). Yet, research shows that these schools are not the innovative spaces they were initially conceived to be, students in these schools are not performing better academically as compared to students in traditional public schools, and in many cases charter schools are more racially segregated (Frankenberg et al., 2011). For example, a recent study concluded that one out of every seven charter schools had a student population that was comprised of at least 99% students of color (Greenblat, 2018).

Open-enrollment plans are another form of school choice that allows students to transfer from one school to another. There are two types of open enrollment policies—inter-district and intra-district—that allow families to choose to send their children to schools outside of their assigned district or within their assigned district, respectively (Miron & Weiner, 2013). Research shows that both of these types of school choice options can exacerbate racial segregation and students from low-income families and students of color are least likely to participate in the programs while white and more affluent families are more likely to utilize the programs to transfer their children to better schools (Holme & Wells, 2008; Wells, 2014). Yet, other research shows that when interdistrict choice policies are intentionally designed to reduced racial or economic isolation, they can serve as important policy tools for promoting integration (Finnigan et al., 2015; Wells et al., 2009). However, because the programs are choice-based, the success of these policies is very much dependent on whether participating suburban school districts provide space for students from urban school districts to enroll in their schools. Moreover, the context in which these policies are situated can shape how the plans are implemented as well as the level of ongoing political support (Finnigan et al., 2015).

Vouchers are a type of school choice option that first gained significant attention in the years following Brown (1954) when school officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, chose to close its segregated public schools to avoid desegregation. White students were provided private schools vouchers, which they used to attend newly established white schools, while Black students were left for five years without schools where they could attend (Orfield, 2013). While the Supreme Court eventually ruled that Prince Edward County had to reopen its schools (Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 1964), it became clear that segregation and inequity could be maintained through school vouchers.

Fast forward to 1990, voucher programs again took center stage as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was heavily criticized for increasing segregation as the majority of those students utilizing the vouchers were Black and Latinx students. Additionally, the schools in which the students were using their vouchers were inferior, lacked resources, and were not experiencing high academic outcomes (Aggarwal, 2015).

Vouchers are still used today and are issued by the government for students, typically specific groups of students (e.g., low-income students), to use at a private school of their choice (Miron & Weiner, 2013). Most recently, Secretary of Education DeVos reignited the voucher debate in her school choice agenda, advocating for the use of public funds for private school vouchers in the name of families having the right to choose, despite the research showing the ineffectiveness of voucher programs (see e.g., Mills & Wolf, 2017; Waddington & Berends, 2018).

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