The Harm That School Choice Has Wrought

As we near 2023, following a pandemic that created intermittent moments of instructional havoc in our schools, the preeminent challenge facing educators, policymakers, students, and parents remains how to ensure that America’s multifaceted, diverse, and unwieldy educational “non-system” provides meaningful learning experiences for all of America’s children.

The pandemic illuminated widening cracks in the foundation of American Education, and today, the most dangerous crack is the non-system’s inability to efficaciously recruit, retain, and allocate a sufficient number of highly effective teachers for those students most in need of them.

Highly effective teachers have three essential and unyielding beliefs:

  • They believe in the ability of all children, including those who are disadvantaged, to learn
  • They believe their calling to be a teacher is a noble one of significant social importance
  • They believe that a professional teacher has a moral responsibility to acquire and finely hone the research-proven skills and strategies needed to lead all students to mastery of the knowledge and skills that will empower them to succeed as adults

The destruction of a secular public education system for all students—a system that for nearly a century was responsible for preparing The Greatest Generation to lead Democracy to victory over Fascism and for building the foundation of science and engineering that (among countless other achievements) added years to the average American’s life, put a human on the moon, and contributed to putting 11 billion mobile connections in the hands of 8 billion peoplehas been a years-long goal of Evangelicals and conservative policy makers.

Today, the efforts to end the American Public Education that prepared many in my generation to achieve success are bearing tangibly rotten fruit (see Empty Classrooms, Abandoned Kids: Inside America’s Great Teacher Resignation) left hanging on the vine for millions of children who are economically disadvantaged, many of whom are immigrants and children of color.

This leads me to think that what I was taught as a child is different from what Conservative Christians’ words and deeds indicate they believe Jesus must have said:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them—you know the children I mean, the ones advantaged enough to attend charter schools, religious schools, private schools, and the schools in public systems situated in enclaves of advantaged families—for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Taking into account the total number of teachers who have been allocated to charter and traditional public schools, as well as to independent and parochial schools across America, the most challenged and disadvantaged of American students have been and will continue to be—post-pandemic—apportioned a disproportionately low portion of those highly effective teachers possessing the beliefs listed above.

The flight of students and teachers over the past decades from public school to private schools, religious schools, charter schools, and high-performing traditional public schools, has created a growing vacuum of instructional quality in schools populated by economically and socially disadvantaged students. These students have been left behind by disillusioned educators, by fleeing parents who want their kids to go to school with kids that look or at least act like their kids, and ill-informed politicians whose agendas are focused on (to their way of thinking) a purification of American schools.

This unfortunate and unAmerican outlook of quintessentially advantaged and disproportionately White Americans has been and will continue to be exploited by those politicians who encourage the culturally destructive power of vouchers, choice and charters.

A Pennsylvania State Senator, a Republican, proclaimed some years back that it was time to provide scholarships (i.e. vouchers) for private and charter schools “for low-income students who are trapped in (persistently failing) schools.” This approach, in his view, was critical to “rescuing and affording them a means to a better life.” Doing so, he claimed, would bring a “transformative change and competition to our schools.”

After the turn of the Millennium, politicians had insisted upon the removal of staff and principals from failing schools as stipulations for the receipt of federal funding (President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative); unfortunately, those politicians had apparently never considered the reality that there was (and remains) an insufficient number of highly qualified applicants to replace them. So, too, had the PA State Senator failed to see the reality of the following:

  • There is still no evidence that allowing students an avenue of escape from public schools has ever brought about a “transformative change and competition to our schools.”
  • There are an insufficient number of seats available in charter and private schools for all of the disadvantaged students who might wish to choose those options, and because private schools are usually selective by definition, only the most able students will be selected to fill the few seats that are being made available to them (and of course, too often “the most able” means students who are six-foot-five and can dunk from the foul line).
  • When students are able to leave persistently failing schools, as experienced since 1978 in New Castle County, Delaware, it is academically high-functioning and/or economically advantaged students who are the most likely to leave for charter schools and non-public options like parochial schools and independent private schools. The departures of these students have resulted in diminished public school populations, which lead to school closures. This results in a smaller number of schools filled with an increasing proportion of disadvantaged children, which in turn results in those children being deprived of the fiscal and human resources such children require, due to the reality that a critical mass of advantaged parents who have traditionally supported public schools feel less disposed to do so when their children are no longer in those schools.

And when it comes to resources, recent history shows us that a disproportionate number of highly effective teachers will either follow highly functioning students to tax-wealthy suburban schools that do not have to face the challenges experienced by persistently failing schools. Or as is the case right now, many will leave the profession altogether.

In this reality, how will the students who are left behind in such disadvantaged schools be afforded “a means to a better life?” The reality is, as I was told some years ago by a former member of the PA State Senate Education Committee: “The Republicans on the committee don’t care about those kids; they think it’s a waste to spend tax dollars on failing schools.” In other words, the Republicans on the committee thought it was a waste to spend money on the kids left behind.

The emphasis on turning resources toward vouchers and charter schools leaves fewer resources available for the greatest challenge facing our collective responsibility to fully educate all Americans: creating professional climates in traditional public schools that would lead to teachers becoming highly effective, and creating systems of Higher Education that effectively recruit and prepare highly effective teachers.

At this moment in time, neither challenge is being met.

The foundational cause underlying our failure to meet these and related challenges is an insidious, deep-seated, collective, and seldom-publicly-acknowledged belief held by influential Americans that economically disadvantaged children, especially those who are children of color, are not capable of mastering World Class learning expectations. It is this debilitating belief that results in the unAmerican, immoral, and inequitable distribution of both fiscal and human resources among America’s public schools, a system that more than ever favors the advantaged among us.

Highly reputable research conducted by the Center for Performance Assessment on the “90/90/90 Schools” reported over two decades ago that there are, in fact, things that can be done to support disadvantaged students without excessive redistribution of resources.

The research revealed that in these schools, where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and more than 90% are from ethnic minorities, over 90% of these students “met or achieved high academic standards.” In these schools, fundamental changes occurred that allowed conscientious teachers to become highly effective.

My decades of experience in public education tell me that ii is possible to change persistently-failing schools to highly-functioning schools by the intelligent use of resources devoted to creating highly effective teachers and principals. As a nation, we should not be resorting to vouchers and charters that currently ensure that the poorest of the poor will be concentrated in the least effective schools. Because proven examples of how to create effective schools has existed for decades—doing so is not rocket science—the burning question is not what to do; rather, the question is:

Why do we as a society persist in refusing to improve failing schools while pursuing other choices that provide more advantages for already advantaged children, choices that result in destructive disadvantages for students less fortunate?


The opinions expressed in this post are based upon my non-scientific sample of one, which has been accrued during four decades in public education as a teacher, central office administrator, high school principal, and lastly, as a state bureaucrat responsible for overseeing the development of school improvement plans for over 800 Pennsylvania schools.

A decade ago, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Middletown, PA, Press and Journal (3/2/2011) in response to a proclamation made by a (now former) Pennsylvania (GOP) State Senator; this post has drawn significantly from that op-ed. This is one of several posts that I will be updating and reposting in response to the current crisis in American public education. As always, your comments will be much appreciated.

Click to link to the blogger’s website.

The image of the teacher’s desk is a copyright free image from Pixabay. No copyright infringement is intended, nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of any featured images used in any post in Growing Up Boomer

One thought on “The Harm That School Choice Has Wrought

Comments are closed.