What's So Bad About Choice?

One of my favorite things to do is buy ice cream.  I can stand in front of a well-stocked cooler of Ben and Jerry’s for an awkward amount of time. Staring at all the new flavors, the wide-reaching ingredients, and the snarky, quasi-political names satisfies my need for adventure.  

Some folks jump out of planes or ski down mountains; I’m content to buy ice cream.

I like the choices.

Choice has become a popular word in the education debate, especially with the pending confirmation vote for the Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy Devos. She made news last week with a 3-hour facebook-feed-worthy interview before the senate education committee. She has been an outspoken advocate for school choice, vouchers, and essentially making schools a lot more like ice cream. You could assume that since I am robotically entranced by the Ben and Jerry’s cooler at Target, that I must also love the idea of giving people lots of choices in education.

You would be wrong though. School choice is much more dangerous than ice cream choice.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  Some of those reasons are complex, intricate, and soaked in emotion and experience. It is difficult to separate this debate from the ownership and rights that parents often feel they have over their child’s learning experiences.  For time’s sake, I’ll try to avoid that here.  But a few of these reasons are fairly simple.  

There is a constant interplay between choice, competition, winning, and losing. I don’t feel bad for “Cherry Garcia,” or even Häagen-Dazs, when I side with “Americone Dream” as my ice cream date for the night. There was a choice, a competition, and “Americone Dream” won. When there is a winner, though, there has to be a loser.  This is no big deal for Häagen-Dazs, they will survive without my $4, but it is a huge deal for students, schools, and communities. When we think about school choice and blend free-market approaches to education, we have to be aware of winning and losing.

In other words, when people win, people also lose.

Then, as people who care, we might want to think about who is losing. For that, we have to think about how “choice” works. Folks like Betsy Devos like to convince themselves that they have created an equitable marketplace for parents to choose an academic path for their children. They like to think that there is no reason why anyone wouldn’t choose the best school that is available.  But these “choice” processes are filled with lengthy, and sometimes confusing, applications, deadlines, phone calls, and unanswered questions. For parents to take advantage, they need time, access to the internet, transportation, knowledge of timelines and procedures, and the luck that is needed to win the lotteries which happen when schools are full.

School choice is not equitable at all.  Instead, the model for which Devos and many others advocate disproportionately advantages resourced students.  As long as we keep pushing choice, we will keep students from accessing the excellent education they deserve.  And, as if it is some planned twist of cruelty, our most vulnerable students and communities are suffering the most. We can work to change who is winning and who is losing in this “choice” model, but is that really what we want?  

I watched and read about Betsy Devos, and tried to learn what her angle was to run our nation’s schools. This could be my boss, so I wanted to figure out what she knows and thinks. I’m a realist about some things, so I wasn’t surprised to see a pro-charter, voucher, and choice nominee from our current president.  We have come to expect that from republican education policy. But there are ripples to every systemic decision we make in education. Some are good and some are bad.  I want the Secretary of Education to understand those ripples. Adults in this field need to recognize that our job is to repair the entire ship, and not just throw faulty life jackets out to the best swimmers. An educational model that values choice creates competition.  Competition always makes winners and losers. In education, we can’t have any children, schools, or communities losing. We’re not talking about selling the best cup of coffee.  We are talking about nothing less than an excellent, free, and public education.

I could write about this for a long time. The truth is, there isn’t much in Devos’s words or actions that show me an understanding of the fundamental nature of this important task. She doesn’t know much of what makes schools work, or not work, or how to help kids learn the things they need.  Her plan is to throw out life jackets, some of which aren’t even working, instead of fixing the ship. Of course the best swimmers are going to get the life jackets. She seems unaware when senators are asking her frustratingly basic questions because she is unaware.  Her “deer in the headlights” look when asked about IDEA, achievement vs. growth, school accountability, and guns in school is because she really was thinking about these things for the first time. In front of a committee deciding whether to confirm her to run our schools.

That is a big deal. Bigger than ice cream flavors. Call a senator. Join an advocacy group.