School Choice Week microphone / Gage Skidmore

November 3, 2015; National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

Ever since the “Philamplify” debate on the pros and cons of school privatization, drawing on the review of the Walton Family Foundation issued by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, there has been a lot of controversy over where progressive philanthropy really stands on charter schools and school vouchers, two of the core tenets of the Walton school reform agenda.

One of the commentators on stage that NCRP recruited for the debate was Lori Bezahler, the president of the Edward R. Hazen Foundation. The foundation’s 2015 through 2019 program goals strongly emphasize “educational justice” as a grantmaking priority. The structure of the Philamplify debate didn’t fully allow the three commentators to weigh in as specifically as they might have on the issues raised by the two primary debaters—a representative of the Chicago Teachers Union on the anti-privatization side and an executive of the Thomas Fordham Institute defending charters and vouchers. Bezahler has taken to the NCRP blog to amplify what she tried to get across in the debate.

Bezahler begins her argument by taking up the question of “choice” in education, a key argument of the adherents of privatization. “Choice makes sense to so many of us in positions of privilege, who direct philanthropic investments and public policy. Markets have worked for us: we have the financial and social capital to choose the supermarket we want to shop in, the kind of work we want to do or where we want to live,” she writes. “However, unless we examine the relationship between privilege and access to markets, we will ignore the constraints that many families face in a market driven education system.”

Among the constraints on choice Bezahler cites are charter/private school applications only in English in some places, meetings inaccessible to families without cars or unable to get out of work, a lack of services in some schools that lower income families typically count on such as subsidized student transportation or free lunches, exclusions of LGBTQ pupils from some schools, and the inadequacy of tax credit voucher scholarships (averaging less than $1,000) for schools whose tuitions may cost tens of thousands of dollars. She also notes how in some cities, parents with means pay private consultants to get their kids access to better schools, and in other places parents “work the system” to bypass the ostensibly fair lottery rules for getting accepted at charter schools. Some parents, Bezahler adds, even pursue access to charters and private schools “to choose [racial] segregation.”

All that is generally true, and it leads to Bezahler’s conclusion. “This is not a market of schools being selected by families, but rather, a market of students being selected by schools,” she writes. “And since markets are driven by competition, some children will win and some will lose, by design. The very antithesis of equity.”

But there is something more. The notion of parents “working the system to get the school of your choice” is now common practice in many school systems. The game of choice has parents focused not on improving public education as a whole, but on scoring the best possible outcomes for their children, a solipsistic overturning of the concept of public education. It isn’t just that parents of wealth and privilege, like so many at the helms of private foundations that so insouciantly promote charter school expansions and tax-subsidized private school vouchers, have a leg up in the school choice scrum, but the dynamic of school choice is increasingly making public education no longer public. It is now zero-sum, focused on the individual and the family and increasingly saying to hell with community identity, mutual aid, and communal or societal responsibility. Caveat pupil.

The debates around charter schools can get caught up in teaching techniques, high-stakes testing, and privatization. What’s lost is what the nation was trying to achieve in the first place with public education. Let’s remember what education is supposed to be, as explained succinctly and powerfully by the Center for Public Education:

Public education means a tuition-free, publicly funded system that must provide an education to each child in a neighborhood school within a publicly governed school system. The academic standards, the teachers and administrators, the values and methods of operation employed in these schools are all subject to oversight and direction by public policy-making bodies. The rights of students and parents are legally defined and are enforceable by the courts.

Public education means that a wide range of decision-making resides at the community level through the operation of locally elected school boards and through other avenues of direct citizen participation in the schools. Public decision-making also occurs through the election of state and congressional representatives, as well as the various publicly accountable agencies designated to carry out specific school functions.

Public education also means a system in which parents and the general public can obtain detailed information about their schools and be involved in school activities…

Only the public schools are legally required to accept and retain all students, no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter their educational attainment, social class, family income, special needs, or personal characteristics. Only the public schools must guarantee that—within a legally enforceable range— the amount spent on each student will be equal from school to school within communities and across the state where those students reside.

The point of contention is not simply that privatized “school choice” as promoted by the Walton Family Foundation (which just gave Teach for America $50 million, by the way) exacerbates inequalities; it also undermines the communal sense of providing universal public education, as formulated in the 1800s by Horace Mann as an instrument for both individual and societal advancement and progress. But as Bezahler indicates, “When markets and ‘choice’ become the drivers of policy, our connection to the overall social mission of schooling deteriorates, and the public commitment to funding public education can be expected to diminish.”

That’s the message of the NCRP “Philamplify” debate that got obscured in the confusion of what the report actually said or didn’t say and the debate format’s emphasis on finding areas of agreement between the pro- and anti-privatization sides.—Rick Cohen