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School “Choice” and the Realities Facing Parents

February 19, 2014

Janyll Canals

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M.D. is a mother who lives in public housing with her teenage son who is intellectually disabled.  M.D. resides in a city praised for its expansion of school choice to assist low-income families.  But what are her choices? 

  1. Send her son to their neighborhood school within walking distance from her home, but is severely under-resourced and does not have the ability to give her son the services he needs;
  2. Send her son to a public charter school that requires her to take more than two train lines to get to and can provide her son with some of the services he needs. This school also has a waitlist of about 100 students;
  3. Send her son to the private school that can offer her son the services he needs but is over an hour away from home and not located near public transportation. She does not have access to a car.

The push for more school choice is appealing in theory, but is predicated on the assumption that parents are informed consumers faced with a “free-market” of school options.  The consumer model, which utilizes non-public entities to run schools, relies on competition to drive school improvement and student success.  Supporters of expanding school choice highlight the higher education system as a model for using choice as a mechanism to enhance educational opportunities for low-income families.

As a consumer, M.D. does have choices, but are these the choices a parent should be confronted with when considering the education of their children?

Despite continuous emphasis on allowing parents to choose, a deeper examination of school choice reveals that school choice is not parent choice.  Proponents of school choice fail to acknowledge the essential distinction between the free-market in higher education and K-12 education.  K-12 education is a fundamental right guaranteed by every state constitution.1

Our public schools are required to educate every child.  This requirement is the very foundation of our society.  In Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision that will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, the Supreme Court not only acknowledged the importance of education, but specifically called for the need to provide all students with equal access to educational opportunities.

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”2

The expansion of choice may actually have a detrimental effect on access to educational opportunities for our children.  Private schools that participate in voucher programs and charter schools are not required to accept every student.  They can be selective.  It is the selective nature of these options that raises serious concerns for the future of our children’s education.

Studies3 reveal that charter schools and voucher programs serve fewer special education and English Language Learner students.  For example, choice supporters have praised the highly privatized charter school system in New Orleans as a successful model for enhancing choice and providing quality education to all students.4  However, parents have vocalized that this is actually not the case.  Instead, they have expressed frustration with being rejected or bounced around from school to school trying to find a school that is willing and able to educate their child or having to travel miles to send each of their children to different schools that were not even their first “choice”.5  Moreover, religious schools participating in voucher programs are not subject to the same civil rights laws as public schools and, therefore, can reject students based on their sexual orientation, national origin, or race.

Studies demonstrate students in voucher programs and charter schools do not perform better than public school students.6  Yet these programs continue to grow and funds continue to be funneled from neighborhood schools to expand these programs.  Each time a new voucher program is implemented or a new charter school is opened, funds are diverted from local neighborhood schools forcing them to cut programs, like sports teams, music programs, elective courses, and even close down entire schools.  Consequently, if we continue to expand these programs, we will continue to defund public education while handing money over to programs with little to no accountability for student performance.

The reality is that M.D. only has one option-to send her son to their failing neighborhood school.  M.D. does not have the means to get her son to the public charter school across town and she cannot afford the cost of a private school.  Unfortunately, this is “choice” for many parents.  If we continue to grow the number of school options, do our parents have choice or just the illusion of choice?


  1. See e.g,. N.J. Const. Art. VIII, § 4, par. 1.
  2. 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).
  3. http://www.epi.org/files/2013/bba-rhetoric-trumps-reality.pdf; http://www.policyinsider.org/2013/06/new-charter-school-report-shows-under-enrollment-of-students-with-disabilities-mixed-academic-outcomes.htmlhttp://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-543; http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP188.pdf
  4. http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2014/ecci_2013.
  5. http://www.splcenter.org/access-denied/special-education-in-new-orleans-public-schoolshttp://www.fflic.org/archives/1128.
  6. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/vouchers-dont-do-much-for-students-97909.html; http://credo.stanford.edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Final%20Draft.pdf.

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