The Problem with Choice

I know too many people who are not educators (and some who are) that are in favor of the choice movement in education. The biggest reason people want choice is to improve the education for their own children and then create competition so that other schools will be forced to improve or shut down. Unfortunately, both reasons are based in misconceptions about education.

I will concede that “choice” is not a bad thing when you are talking about businesses, service industries, and commodities. We definitely want businesses to compete for our money. Competition makes businesses strive for excellence. That’s why people, outside of education mostly, thought that “choice” would make all schools better, but it hasn’t.

Why? First, because education is not a business; it is a human right (Article 26) that is protected as part of our inalienable fundamental rights to which people are entitled simply because they are human beings, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour (sic), sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

In other words, if a business fails, the owners can start over, maybe poorer and a little wiser, but no real harm done. If a school fails, it has negatively affected the human rights of every child that went to that failing school.

So how does the “choice” movement hurt human rights? Bear with me as I try to explain this point.

If you are for “choice” in education, you want better “service” for your child. We all want what is best for our children–I’m not arguing that. But if your child is going to a failing school, and you have the money to pay for private schools, which is part of that choice movement, then you will no longer care about that failing school because you can give your child something better (unless your child makes a mistake which will result in an expulsion with no chance of return to that private school). That is great for you and your family, but what about all the other children who can’t afford to pay for private schools?

The next question is usually, isn’t that why people came up with charter schools, so that people who can’t afford private schools can still get a quality education? Yes. Charter schools, in general, are another great idea–on paper. You don’t have to pay for charter schools out of your own pocket—technically—but your tax dollars go to those schools. Our government gives charter schools a certain amount of money for every child enrolled in that charter school; so just like public schools, our government pays for your child’s education—that is if you are lucky enough to get selected, and your child behaves well enough to stay at that school. Most charter schools operate on a lottery system, so not all students will get in, and most schools will kick students out who make mistakes or make the school look bad in any way.

Once again, for those parents who want choice, this sounds great because those children who are selected have a great atmosphere for learning.

However, what people forget is that there are many students who will have to continue going to that failing school. If you can’t worry about someone else’s children, then just consider this: Pulling your child out of the failing school does not pull them out of the society in which they live. One way or another, the negative effects of that failing school will still affect you and your children.

Just to summarize the first point, education is not a business; it is a human right. Therefore, educational choice is about people only caring about their children—no one else’s. Those who can afford it will choose to pay for their children to go to private schools. Out of those that remain, some parents will apply to charter schools and a few lucky students will get selected. That leaves the rest in public schools because public schools will take every rejected and expelled student and do the best they can to educate those students within the confines of the system. Public schools also have incredible students who are successful despite the “choice” movement.

Is it any wonder our public schools look like they are failing if the wealthy and well behaved students are all going somewhere else? Along these lines, by eliminating the heterogeneous classroom in all three options, it makes it harder for those struggling students to see what work ethic, study skills, and perseverance looks like. On the other hand, a classroom that has students with different genders, talents, abilities, interests, backgrounds, and cultures will help all students work toward a higher standard. The students in heterogeneous schools can relate to the world better because they experience diversity on a daily basis. The homogeneous classrooms found in private and charter schools miss out on this necessary part of children’s education. Also, when you remove the top tier of motivated students, the learning culture deteriorates on multiple levels. Students with average ability, motivation, or interest lose that interest, and kids who struggle for whatever reason just give up. Remember, we want our children to be civic-minded and global citizens. How can they understand the global world or empathize with the struggles in our society if they grow up only relating to people just like them? Denver Post cartoon satirizing the effect of standardized tests on public education.
Denver Post cartoon satirizing the effect of standardized tests on public education.

Second, it is important to note that private and charter schools don’t operate under the government’s watchful eye, which allows them to reject the highly controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and refuse to participate in the corresponding state tests. Since these schools operate independently, they don’t have to participate in the very reasons that people are complaining about public schools. As a matter of fact, many private and charter schools saw the CCSS as a flawed document right from the start and opted out of it.

Remember, CCSS and the state tests are mandated for public schools by the government, while at the same time, the government is pushing for more charter schools that do not have to follow the mandates of the government. Does that make sense? So how can this “choice” movement improve the quality of all schools, when public schools don’t have the autonomy to fix their schools?

Third, to make matters worse, the government is giving money to private and charter schools because of that “choice” movement in the form of vouchers—money that could be given to public schools to improve those failing schools. Of course private and charter schools are going to appear as the right “choice” when they have money to purchase the newest technology, have the freedom to be innovative, and can reject the foolish educational reforms that are more about money than about our children.


Those outside of education do not understand that public schools cannot choose to change their operating methods, so it is impossible for public schools to compete in this so called “business market.” Besides the fact that education is a human right and not a business, the business competition model cannot change public schools because public schools are at the mercy of the government that continues to cut the budget of public schools to pay for tests and to give vouchers to private and charter schools.

Fourth, people and the government are not paying attention to the problems with some charter schools. John Oliver did this great piece on charter schools that exposed the problems with the government funding these unregulated entities.  Many “nonprofit” charter schools are finding deceptive was to make a profit. Once again, if “choice” education is supposed to create competition and a striving for excellence among all schools, Oliver’s research shows how that business model is failing even in the charter school industry.

On the other side of this issue, though, I will admit, there are some amazing charter schools out there. This is my biggest frustration: If there are innovative schools that are working, why can’t we adopt those innovations in public schools?

If parents truly want choice, this is where we as parents and educators need to concentrate our efforts. In Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statement that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” should be taken literally and used to fix public education for all, not to give choice only to the wealthy and the fortunate.

If we want true education reformation, we need to make sure the public tax dollars are being used correctly to create an actual choice movement within the public school system itself: Increase money being spent on public education to improve ALL schools, regardless of location; increase teachers’ salaries to create a true competition for quality teachers; increase public school autonomy so that principals and teachers can use their knowledge and experience to innovate and create the right learning environment for their students.

If people are really concerned about choice, they should make sure their local public school is doing what their children need in order to thrive. Imagine a public school that has the elite academic prep curriculum of Phillips Exeter Academy for those students who are college bound; the innovation of The Ron Clark Academy for those who are creative or learn differently; the care and nurturing of the Learning Skills Academy for those with learning disabilities; and The Independent Project ( for those who want independence and a nontraditional education. Using these innovative schools as models to transform public schools would meet the needs of every student regardless of race, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status—not just the wealthy and lucky few.

30 thoughts on “The Problem with Choice

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful piece which draws such a clear picture of the nightmare we public school teachers face each and every day. I would add to your point ” it is important to note that private and charter schools don’t operate under the government’s watchful eye,” that my life’s passion, special education students, are at a great loss in this paradigm which does nothing to ensure that these schools accept students with different learning abilities, let alone provide individualized strategies. What kind of message are we sending to our beautiful, amazing young people who simply learn, see, and hear things in a different manner? I teach in one of the poorest counties in Northern California where we do our very best to provide all we can with the little we have. One thing we have a whole lot of is heart, understanding, and the love of teaching. We will keep up the best we can.

  2. I don’t know what state the author lives but in TN Charters are required to follow the same standards used in the traditional public schools and I know other states do as well. There are also no requirements to have certified teachers in a Charter school and Charter schools have no elected school boards. They also generally do not take ELL or special needs students. So eventually if an entire school district converts to charters (and they will) the elected voice of the parents is gone forever (just talk to some parents in New Orleans). Who will you go to if the Charter school your child attends doesn’t please you? And today I as tax payer, with no children in the system, can go to my school board and discuss the budget or other issues of concern. I cannot do that in a Charter School even though my money pays the bills for that school. Also, when was the last time a traditional public school was open for business on Friday and found out of business on Monday? Leaving hundreds of children stranded and now the LEA has to find a place for these children. This does not happen with traditional public schools. But it happens on a daily basis with Charters. Once Charters is in full operation all over the country you will see the big boys swoop in and buy up all the schools. These schools will become training centers for the global planned economy. This is the true agenda behind Charters and Vouchers. It isn’t our agenda but it IS their agenda. Don’t like your elected school board? That is your fault. Parents needs to make their demands known and must stick together and attend meetings. And if you are still not happen run as a block to replace those that will not allow you to speak and will not address your issues. With an elected school board you have that option. With a Charter district and not elected school boards you have no voice. This is also called taxation without representation. VOUCHERS…..once a private school takes students with federal and/or state vouchers GUESS WHAT? They are no longer private schools. They will be required to follow federal and state mandates. Private schools are funded by private money and that is why they are private. Sorry but there are no fast buck solutions. The best solution of all is to shut down the US Department of Education and return ALL education matters to the SEA/LEA and parents. And of course no money flows from the federal governement to the. states. Now you have 50 laboratories of innovation and competition. The states with the best education system will get business moving there which will bring people. Now how do we shut down the US Department of Education. Well it is obvious by Donald Trump’s leftist appointment as Secretary of Education he isn’t about to do it. So the only option is for a national student/teacher walkout. And stay out until there is plan set in place to shut it down. We need to go back to pre-1965 Classical education. We educated the greatest minds in the history of the world at the kitchen table and in one room school houses. Times have changed….and not for the better I might add. But the way children learn best has not changed. The way the brain functions has not changed. When they told us American education was in crisis that was a big fat LIE. It was a lie they told in order to bring in their system of job training and end academic learning. Data can be manipulated to say whatever they need it to say and it is manipulated on a daily basis. Just like when they tell Americans are not internationally competitive. ANOTHER LIE. They skew and twist the PISA and TIMSS data and leave out a lot of the details that matter. If you study the data and share all the facts you will see a much different story. But they cherry pick what they want to share to push their agenda. Time to get Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Waltons, Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller etc etc out of bed with our government and end their meddling in education because these people DO see education as a profit making business. A HUGE profit making business…$600 BILLION a year just in the US. Take my advice. Organize in your state and lets plan a national student/teacher walk out. The time for begging is over. We have been trying to work this through the proper channels for years and they ignore us. Well it is time to STARVE THE BEAST. They cannot ignore us anymore. If you are not prepared to go to war then you are not really that concerned with the future of education in America. It is time to get serious.

    1. Agree fully with most of your post. This part, “Donald Trump’s leftist appointment as Secretary of Education”, requires commenting on since Betsy DeVos is known to be a far right Christian conservative.

      1. She may consider herself a far right Christian conservative but the facts about her don’t measure up. She is a corporate profiteer just like Gates, Walton, Broad etc. She sees the $600 BILLION to be made in the education industry. She wants FOR PROFIT Charters and Vouchers (which will destroy private schools). She is in bed with the enemy. JeB Bush (FEE) Michelle Rhee (Students First), Heritage (the creator of NAFTA). You just need to do some real research.

  3. All politicians avoid the one problem with education that needs to be fixed and this is parental involvement. Almost every single successful student in school has one thing in common with all others, and that is parents who take failure as unacceptable. If politicians took an unbiased look at struggling schools anywhere in the country, they would find the same problems. Rampant absenteeism, little to no parental involvement, revolving student enrollment, etc. Charter schools will not fix this problem, throwing money at public schools won’t fix this problem. Fixing what is wrong with our communities is what it’s going to take.

    1. You are so right. But you see they do not really want to improve education or address any problems with education because they have a completely different agenda. But you are right. All the money, great teachers, most advance schools will NEVER fixe the failure of todays parents and the destruction of the family. All by design.

  4. First, until we get rid of private schools in the US our education system will always be unequal and favor those with the money and resources to navigate the system. In addition, your second point is completely false as it relates to charters. Public Charter schools especially in districts where they comprise a considerable portion of the schools, are held to the same federal and state regulations as traditional public schools. This applies to attendance, curriculum, testing, and special education laws. DC, for example, where almost 50% of the public school system is charter, has extensive over sight and all regulations set by the DC SBOE and State Superintendent are follwed by all public schools. We should have open conversations about choice, but if you don’t have any working knowledge of charters it’s hard to have that conversation.

    1. That may be true where you teach, but it is not true everywhere in the US. I never said ALL charter schools, and I never said all charter schools are bad. I mentioned a few great charter schools in my post. I don’t think it’s ever a good choice to assume things about a person you have never met.

  5. I understand why a charter parent would support charters, they want an advantage for their child. I understand why billionaires like charters, they beat down wages and benefits for the middle class and allow market based privatization of education, just like they did with the military and healthcare.

    But I cannot understand why anyone else would support a “solution” that only works for a select few, draining resources for the vast majority. This is tantamount to treating a room on fire by closing the door and hanging out in an adjacent room.

    I get that charter schools promised to devise solutions to help the larger system, but it’s been almost 20 years now and they can’t even pull their weight with high needs kids, let alone help anyone else. The NAACP knows better than anyone, it’s time to look at charter schools as a failed experiment as we move on to more serious solutions that are fair and equitable for all.

  6. We as educators are taking the bait by pitting these two public school options against each other. It distracts from all the other other reasons, such as poverty, lack of resources, and beauracracy that hinder student success and achievement. Charter and public schools should be working together and sharing best practices. Some families with few options or advantages choose charter schools, because they provide a smaller school and more support than traditional public schools often do. The charter school I work for, has a longer school day to help with remediation ,and teachers stay for “office hours” after school and tutor students who need extra support. We have been using mindfulness and restorative practices to reduce behavior problems and suspensions. If public schools emulated some of the practices in charter schools, all students could benefit, regardless of what school they attend. Our charter school also uses best practices we see at the neighboring public school, and I collaborate with their chemistry department to get ideas for my class. I understand that public schools often get unfairly criticized and shoulder the burden of fixing many systemic and societal problems, which is misguided. However, lashing out and pointing the finger at other public school options is not going to fix the problem. As you noted, there are very good charter schools out there, as there are very good traditional public schools. We should have each other’s backs. We are all educators trying our best to give our students the best education possible. We are not against each other. We are fighting the same fight, whether we work in a public or charter school.

  7. While I agree with your post, you miss a very important issue. 30-50 years ago, people with means left urban centers for the suburbs and poverty was further concentrated rather than diluted. This left people in cities feeling abandoned (as they were) to crime containment and other measures of poverty containment. Now we have schools in the midst of these that draw upon geographically proximal neighborhoods. What if I am poor and not criminal but significant numbers of my neighbors are poor and criminal and maybe not effective parents? Where is my ability to “flee”? Why shouldn’t I be afforded the same opportunity as my wealthier cousins?

    Now, you can argue that we should have had county wide schools, or desegregation efforts, etc., but that is of little comfort right now. We need a way to tackle this very real problem because the necessary supports to effectively tackle the problem are quite resource intensive. At the moment, states and society seem unwilling to commit so what is the solution?

  8. Much of this comes down to shared sacrifice and folks priorities. Ie, a friend has chosen to teach in a very high poverty inner city school pretty much her entire career. Many of her peer’s have chosen to go on to different schools for a number of reasons. In some cases, it was for reasons of personal safety, in others to find a more supportive administration, and in others to making more money for themselves and their families… In choosing to do so, are they not leaving these kid’s behind? Only an extreme idealist would say making those choices is problematic… but when parents are told they can’t have a choice, they must stay where they are, how truly different is it?

    In a related thought, due to the high level of gang activity at her school, my friend chose to send her kids to a neighboring school district which is much safer. Ie, what parent, no matter how idealistic could live with themselves if their kid was injured or worse when they had a choice to keep their kids at least a little bit more isolated from violence and chose not too? And yes, some hard core idealists struggle with this and choose to do so… but its not an easy decision by far, especially when your kids school is surrounded and sometimes infiltrated with gang activity.

    Equality sounds great on an academic plane, and its relatively easy to advocate for, when the sacrifice is not so personal. However, when it does become very personal and in your face… it can be hard, very hard. I’m glad there are folks like my friend and her peers in the world… but not all are willing or even capable of doing so.

    The pie is fixed in size, there are only so many resources available… which brings about hard decisions. Do we choose utilitarianism and focus on the most good for the most people, or do we shoot for equality, even if it means suffering for many in order to raise up a few? The middle class are the ones called upon to sacrifice, as the very wealthy will always find or create workarounds…

    Its a whole lot grayer than folks would like it to be.

  9. “If people are really concerned about choice, they should make sure their local public school is doing what their children need in order to thrive”. How is this done?

  10. I was pleased to see you mention several model charter programs that you thought could be imitated/implemented in the public sector. Many years ago now my local school district created a program within the high school, now called the Delta Program. It was, and is, committed to student centered programming, and lots of parent and community involvement. The idea was that a student who was interested in painting might do an internship with a local artist and get regular academic credit for it. Or a person who taught history at the local university could teach a course for high school students, even if s/he did not have a teaching certificate. Students could create courses — when one daughter was in 9th or 10th grade her father pointed out that none of the possible English classes were teaching any great literature. She and three friends found a teacher who would do Dickens with them. There is an All-School Meeting every week, where people talk about problems, ideas, etc. The classes are always small, and each term each student sits down with parents and advisors to come up with a plan for the term. Both my daughters attended this program. It cost no one any more than going to the regular high school programs cost, yet it had options that were not available otherwise. I suspect that if the idea for the program had come up in the 1990s it would have been a charter school, and I have gone on at length because this was NOT a charter school, but offered many of the benefits charters are supposed to offer.

  11. I wonder if the author is aware that MOST “choice” options in the U.S. are TARGETED for people without the means to pursue private education themselves? In other words, “means testing” is a significant factor in MOST “school choice” options. It seems to call into question many of the assumptions laid out here.

    Secondly, it misses the fundamental challenge with an “anti-choice” attitude: WHO CHOOSES?

    When it comes to public schools, paid for with public (taxpayer) money, there is this myth being propagated here that the taxpayers have the ultimate say on how that money is spent (“accountability”)…ask any taxpayer who has shown up at a public hearing dominated by teachers and administrators who just want MORE MORE MORE…who that has been working out for them.

    Unfortunately, though there is more to say, that is all I have time for today.

    God Bless,

    1. I have absolutely no control over the budget or policy decisions made in my school district. My retirement, which I have paid into for 15 years has been converted from a defined benefit to a 401K. The size of my paycheck has increased by $30 bi-weekly over the last 10 years. Nor will I ever receive a raise, as I am at the top step. That’s it. I will continue to make the same amount for the rest of my career, despite any further education I pursue or any extra duties I choose to take on. I am also a taxpayer in the community I have chosen to live in. I have chosen to make a life time committment to this community because that is what I always wanted to do. I love my job. I love my students. The cost of living here will continue to rise. My retirement will continue to be subjected to the instability of the stock market. I will continue to pay my taxes and share the same frustrations that any community member experiences. The idea that teachers just want more is a popular piece of propaganda – but it is terribly inaccurate. Teachers do want to be paid to their job, as does anyone in any career. Teachers do hope to be able to retire eventually, as does anyone in any career. Teachers spend a lot of time advocating for students. That is our priority. Our working conditions are our student’s learning conditions. I agree that taxpayers have little control over the decisions that are made. I am one of those taxpayers. Teachers have zero ability to direct policy or budget. We are considered nothing more than interchangeable “human capital.” And it is very easy for the policy makers to push us around because of the efficiency of the propaganda that has painted us all as money grubbing parasites. The Republican party is poised to finally finish off what is left of teacher’s unions in this country. You may think that it is about time. But the system we currently have does provide much more accountability than the privatized system Republicans would like. At least right now you have a school board to talk to. The for-profit dream of the alt-right will not get you into a shareholders meeting to demand accountability.

      1. Nicely put Christine Pierce. Teachers work hard, all year round, need at least a bachelor’s degree, and make less than many other professionals do with similar levels of education. One thing I do not completely agree with is how much impact taxpayers can have on a school district. Over the years I have lived in this (university) town I have seen a lot of instances where organized parent groups got the attention of, and action from the School Board (elected). Most recently a neighborhood school was saved from closing and instead marked for a renovation– and in the process forced the district to confront the impact on the community at large of shutting a school has. Organized activity can work.

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