After School Choice? The Eternal Return of the Public School

Rita Koganzon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Professor Koganzon is also Associate Director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.

In the years prior to the Covid pandemic, a growing number of scholars, organizations, and policymakers who had been supportive, even integral to the contemporary school reform movement began to get cold feet. A series of defections and reversals seemed to spell its end, and critics like Diane Ravitch (herself one of the defectors) were already publishing obituaries for it when the unexpected crises of 2020 arose, raising new uncertainties about the future of education policy.

Looking back before 2020, signs of the school reform movement’s demise seem to be everywhere: The increasingly unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark 2001 legislation that jumpstarted national student achievement testing and accountability, was replaced in 2015 with legislation that removed its main accountability provisions and devolved oversight back to the states. Teach for America, one of the earliest and most successful pioneers of data-driven reform aimed at improving the quality of the teaching force by recruiting top university graduates to teach in low-performing schools, pivoted in the mid-2010s to a decentralized model focused on selecting candidates for likelihood to remain in the profession and reoriented its mission and institutional culture around social justice rather than test results. By the 2020 election, school choice – an umbrella term for various state- and district-level programs of charter schools and vouchers – became for the first time a partisan issue: nearly all the major Democratic candidates supported restricting charter expansion and increasing their regulation, and none supported public funding for vouchers. 

Criticism of the school reform movement, particularly from the left, had been mounting all through the 2000s and 2010s – complaints that accountability testing diluted the curriculum and encouraged “teaching to the test,” that apparently successful charters simply “creamed” the best students and the most resourceful families in a district while leaving the rest behind to languish in further diminished district schools, and that these charters along with voucher programs diverted funds from their public counterparts. More fundamentally, critics charged that the reform movement was simply another neoliberal effort by corporations to cannibalize public goods for private profit. Eventually, some previously vocal supporters of school choice like Sol Stern equivocated, arguing that choice wasn’t demonstrating the hoped-for outcomes. Others, like Ravitch went further in their reversals, asserting that the school reform movement that began in the 1980s had never aimed at improvement at all. Rather, its “ultimate goal was to eliminate public education.”

It requires impressively paranoid thinking to believe that a three decade-long decentralized movement that enjoyed enormous bipartisan support and was fed variously by philanthropists, entrepreneurs, state legislatures, mayors, school boards, ambitious teachers and principals, scholars, and three different presidential administrations had such a unified and singular goal, especially one so unpopular and at odds with all their stated purposes. The simpler explanation is perhaps that a more market-based approach to improving public education that seemed promising to a very broad swath of America did not deliver, or not in all its forms and at the desired scale.

Some of the creations of the choice era, like the KIPP schools and Success Academies, have been so successful for so long that they are likely to weather a general shift in elite opinion against school choice. But that shift is here for everyone else, and to the degree that the anti-choice position has a positive vision, it has so far prioritized a return to the neighborhood public school as a core “community institution” (in Ravitch’s words) to be buttressed by all the available resources of a community rather than micromanaged by distant foundations and their data nerds, or forced into competition against upstart alternatives. Such schools will be orderly, well-lit places where races and social classes mingle respectfully, where children are cultivated and nurtured instead of ranked and tested, where teachers are authoritative and supported by parents and administrators alike, and where afterschool activities serve as a focal point of communal life, assimilating entire families into the neighborhood. If it could do all these things, who would mind if there were no alternatives? 

Progress has been made towards this verdant vision in the past few years. The social status of teachers received a boost from a series of successful and high-visibility teacher strikes across the country in 2018 and 2019, cheered on by the media and liberal elites, that depicted teachers as heroic professionals, abused and disrespected by reform wonks who forced them into untenable working conditions and craven state legislators who denied them a living wage. With liberals galvanized by implacable opposition to Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who seemed to them to embody the worst possibilities of the reform movement, charter growth slowed nationwide, voucher legislation stalled in several states, and a renewed concern with racial disparities pushed some affluent white families to reconsider neighborhood schools for children they might have otherwise sent to private or magnet schools. Not just choice-based programs came under suspicion, but even selective-enrollment programs that long pre-dated the choice movement – like gifted programs within schools and entire schools with selective admissions like Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia and the exam schools in New York City – were attacked for entrenching inequality. Liberals seemed to be falling back in love with traditional district schools as civic institutions, with teachers and unions, perhaps even with PTA bake sales had their romance been given more time to blossom.

But then the pandemic hit. No matter how deeply the left had come to cherish the public schools in theory by then, the reality of their response to the pandemic was far from comforting. While school shutdowns in spring 2020 were widely-supported, the politicization of re-opening plans by teachers’ unions last summer began to fracture the pro-public school consensus. Many private schools were open again in person by the fall but the majority of public school districts, particularly urban and suburban ones, were still relying exclusively on ad hoc virtual instruction into the spring. The same low-income and minority students whom the opponents of choice sought to save by restoring the integrity of public schools were put into the worst possible position by the public schools in 2020, that of receiving almost no education at all. And the unions that had been so widely praised only two years earlier began to see their public support erode as pressure mounted on teachers to return to classrooms, particularly after they were given vaccine priority in many states for this very purpose, while unions held out for more concessions and accommodations from districts. The result was an impasse that ultimately closed down most of the nation’s biggest districts for the entire academic year, a shocking outcome that has eroded the support of even the most earnest proponents of neighborhood schools. As of April, some districts still have no firm plans for returning to in-person instruction by next fall. 

While the pandemic was calling into question the ability of the public schools to educate students in the most basic sense, the summer’s protests against racial injustice inspired many districts that failed to open this year to revise their curricula to focus more intensively on racial justice, often using approaches that have generated substantial controversy both nationally and – more significantly for the vision of the restored community school – locally. In suburban Loudoun County, VA, for example, the school district’s equity plan has sparked a public squabble between parents who support and those who oppose the measures, full of the melodramatic and vindictive behavior to which we’ve all become accustomed by social media. Setting aside the wisdom of these particular changes, the larger difficulty that these controversies point to is that the vision of those who seek to re-empower schools and teachers and return them to democratic community control assumes a harmonious “community,” one that has been suppressed by meddling outsiders and will reemerge cohesively once the reformers are sent packing. But does such a community exist?

In fact, culture wars of this kind have played out at the local level for most of the 20th Century. From the Scopes Trial in 1925 to the turmoil in Kanawha County, WV in 1974, conflict between public school constituencies has been unceasing – between state authorities and districts, parents and teachers, and parents and parents. Many of these conflicts, especially over school consolidation and busing, and curricula and textbooks, wound their way to the Supreme Court. But peaceful solutions did not always result: in Kanawha County, parental opposition to a state-selected textbook resulted in a mass boycott of the schools and ultimately in the bombings of several elementary schools. 

School choice in the broadest sense has to some degree defused these conflicts over the past 30 years by giving families opposed to their local situations more outlets through which to exit peacefully (and at low or no cost) – through vouchers, homeschooling, specialized and selective enrollment schools, charters. We might think that this is just cowardly conflict-avoidance, and that forcing all these feuding constituencies to come together to hash out their differences democratically and compromise with one another would be a salutary step in overcoming the country’s growing polarization. That might indeed be nice, if they don’t kill each other first. More straightforwardly, we might worry that it will only hasten the process of residential class and ideological segregation that is already taking place across the country as families seek out like-minded neighbors precisely to avoid being forced to conform to values they don’t share.

Ravitch is likely right that the national testing-driven reform efforts of the past 30 years are winding down. But the paralysis of the public schools in the face of the pandemic should raise real doubts about the wisdom of absorbing everyone into a single institution if that institution is so vulnerable to sudden breakdown. Indeed, at the state level, choice legislation has progressed during the closures. Still, the goal of revitalizing neighborhood public schools, reaffirming the authority and autonomy of teachers, and returning districts to local, democratic control could, in principle at least, appeal across the political spectrum. But can the hopeful vision of the all-embracing neighborhood school withstand the combined strains of pandemic shutdown and equity-oriented curricular revolution? 

Because so much of what she appeals to is a simplified and nostalgic vision of the local and democratic, Ravitch herself has little to say about the looming crisis of perfectly local and democratic conflict over the schools. In many districts (perhaps even most), the unions, district administrators, state boards, parents, and students are not even close to agreement on basic questions. Now, with the option to “go public” on social media also available to all these parties, everyone must contend as well with increased public scrutiny of every decision and statement they make by a highly polarized online audience. 

The institutional melodramas over racialized curricula in elite private schools that New York-based media has been so gleefully reporting on over the past few months will inevitably bubble up in public districts all over the country by next fall as well. To an even greater degree, conflict over efforts to remove or dilute ability-based acceleration – gifted programs, advanced math and science coursework, and entire exam schools – in the name of equity will spark energetic opposition among parents, who will form new and unexpected coalitions. The dissenters will have personal stakes – their own children – in these disputes, and they cannot be written off as mere outside meddlers imposing some distant billionaire’s agenda on public education. How will these conflicts be resolved? 

If families are to have a role in local control of their schools, then their opposition to the mandates of state boards and district administrators and DEI consultants probably should not be met with doxxing and blackmail campaigns by school staff. Nor, perhaps, should supposedly empowered and autonomous teachers who oppose curricular changes be fired for voicing dissent. If choice is deemed inequitable and everyone who can’t afford an alternative is to be channeled into undifferentiated neighborhood schools intended to accommodate everyone, far from everyone will accept the accommodations they receive. This will not be a new problem. It will be a return to the status quo ante, the already-polarized world of lawsuits over textbook “censorship” and Kanawha County, of white flight and busing – conflicts that the school choice movement eased without resolving. It is hard to see how we will arrive at a local and democratic solution this time around without incorporating any of the peacekeeping lessons of choice.

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