I am principally opposed to the idea of school choice. I would also be tempted to take advantage of it if I could. This is the cognitive dissonance through which I’ve examined the recently sparked debates on the issue—an uncomfortable knowledge that I am individually complicit in a system I’m morally opposed to.

When I began work on my teaching degree, I assumed the public education system was intended to be a service utilized for private good. Though I always attended public schools, I attended them with an attitude informed by meritocracy. School was one of many proving grounds for my individual worth—it was a commodity to be pocketed in pursuit of broader social mobility. I didn’t consider an alternative purpose for education until I turned my sights toward a teaching career. It didn’t dawn on me that such a system might be intended for communal good, not individual gain.

As with any community, schools are not islands unto themselves. Enacting school choice affects the larger system, and we have an obligation to monitor that system lest we run the risk of abandoning the marginalized.

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the next Education Secretary of the United States, she catalyzed a broiling ideological debate over the fundamental purpose of the public education system—namely, whether such a system should serve a public or private good. Buzzwords like “school choice,” which is so vague as to be practically meaningless, have been spat with renewed disdain. Meanwhile, advocates of school choice have pointed toward a broken system—one that has already failed many students. They have turned their gaze toward a solution that seems to grant individualized control over an entire system. And that seems appealing—even to someone like me, who is principally opposed to the idea of school choice.

Of course, it’s difficult to discuss school choice fairly without clarifying what we mean when we say it. School choice is an umbrella term that can refer to anything from homeschooling to a universalized voucher program; it is the idea of the latter that makes me and many others uncomfortable. Such a program would essentially privatize public funds by granting students vouchers to be expended at any educational institution they wanted to attend. The objective would be to circumvent the pitfalls of public education by avoiding it altogether. While many families already do this, they don’t siphon public funding away from schools to do it.

Though a voucher program might prove advantageous for a small number of our nation’s most vulnerable students, I fear it would further marginalize most of them. Students with disabilities are difficult to include in mainstream classrooms; they typically present a financial burden to schools. While current legislation requires public schools to provide students with disabilities a free, appropriate, public education, private institutions are not subject to those laws in the same way public schools are. Further, private schools maintain the right to be selective, allowing for the possibility that an admission process might be leveraged against marginalized students. Researchers concluded that participants in the Cleveland voucher program faced sizable obstacles utilizing vouchers, perhaps because of stringent admission processes or perhaps because the vouchers did not cover a high enough percentage of tuition costs. The bottom line is that under a universal voucher program, students who find themselves without any other viable option would be left to public institutions drained of students, teachers, and funding.

Admittedly, this is a worst-case scenario. Ms. DeVos does not actually hold the legislative power to enact a universalized voucher system, but she can certainly use her position to popularize the idea. And, unfortunately, an already broken education system has left the ground fertile for such a thought.

Public education in the United States is already inequitable. Vouchers or no vouchers, families with financial flexibility already have the privilege of shopping for schools, even in the public sector. Because schools are primarily funded via property taxes, districts with the wealthiest families also have the wealthiest schools. Families with financial flexibility can purchase a house in the school system of their choice.

It is easy for me to oppose the kind of school choice we mean when we discuss voucher systems; my son is autistic and would be marginalized by such a program. I feel as though I’m competing in moral gymnastics, though, when I consider the ways I could use my financial position to choose a school under our existing system. Yes, I am theoretically opposed to school choice. I know that it is inequitable, and I firmly believe that we have lost sight of public education as a public good. The debate has become so polarizing, though, that we’ve left no room for the possibility that education serves both public and private goods. This means I must strike a balance between serving my community and tending to my son’s interests.

I don’t stand to gain anything from a universal voucher system, but if moving meant my son would have access to a better education, I might do it. I’d at least be tempted. It raises the question: what is my responsibility as an individual living under a system I believe to be unjust? While the Bible does not address social justice issues in the same verbiage we’ve become accustomed to today, it does model the use of privilege to shield the vulnerable.

Am I obligated, then, to join my community? And if so, does that mean an obligation to the public schools? I believe it does, to some degree, even if that obligation does not manifest in joining one. As with any community, schools are not islands unto themselves. Enacting school choice affects the larger system, and we have an obligation to monitor that system lest we run the risk of abandoning the marginalized.

This is the problem inherent to the idea of privatizing public education—it is a solution conceived for a collection of individuals rather than for a coherent system. It inserts too great a degree of egocentrism into a communal experience. Viewing education in this way is tempting for me. I could wring benefits from this system that others cannot. But as long as I believe that public education should exist to serve a public good, I cannot honor my compulsion to work against it. As long as I believe that my interests are no more important than my neighbors’, I cannot prioritize them to the detriment of my community.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. As a formerly homeschooled student (who attended public high school) I am inclined to mistrust the public system for its one-size fits all approach, but I can also see how vouchers raise concern about those left behind.

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