A Critique of Private Schools, Vouchers, and the School Choice Movement

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the big ideas at the heart of the education reform movement in many countries is the concept of “school choice”. The idea is that by allowing parents to choose schools for their children, policymakers can use the principle of market competition to force schools to improve. By forcing schools to compete for students to receive funding, school choice is meant to force schools to make themselves more appealing to parents. In theory, school choice doesn’t even increase inequality, because vouchers can be issued allowing parents to send their kids to private schools that would otherwise be too expensive. This is intuitively appealing, but does it hold up against scrutiny?

School choice theory makes a fundamental assumption–that when students do not succeed, the failure lies primarily with the education system, with the schools and teachers. But we know that schools are certainly not the only factor influencing the success of students. To do well in school, students need parents who are deeply involved in the education process and provide a nurturing home environment. The right home environment can help a student succeed even at a school that performs poorly statistically, and the wrong home environment can submarine a student even at a school that performs well.

Now, when the state awards parents vouchers and allows them to choose schools for their children, it stands to reason that the parents who invest the most time and energy into finding the best school (i.e. the one that performs the best statistically) will also be the parents who care the most about their children’s education and put the most effort into creating the kind of home environment that fosters success. The parents who allow their students to be slotted into the nearest state school without doing much research are also probably the parents who are unwilling or unable to devote that kind of time and energy. This could be because the parents work long hours or themselves lack the education necessary to appreciate the importance of it in life. Whatever the reason, the tendency will be for the private schools to get the students with the most committed parents while the state schools receive those who are least committed.

This results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The private schools will be full of the students with the best home support, so their students will perform well, making the private schools look good, causing more discerning parents to send their students to private school. The state schools will be full of the students with the least home support, so their students will perform poorly, making the state schools look bad, causing more discerning parents to avoid sending their kids to state school. And indeed, the available research indicates this–when we adjust test scores to take into consideration individual student characteristics,  there is no substantive difference between state schools and private schools. Many private schools are free to turn away students they anticipate might be difficult to teach, such as those with learning disabilities or adverse socioeconomic backgrounds, while state schools are required by law to take everyone, and this contributes to the state schools’ disadvantage.

But the average lay parent likely doesn’t know these things, so the effect of the school choice system is to slowly drive more and more of the easier students to teach out of the state schools, until only those students with indifferent parents or undesirable characteristics remain. In the meantime, the best teachers increasingly move into the private schools, because teaching the students with advantageous characteristics and strong home environments is easier and more fun than trying to work with disadvantaged students in the state schools. Eventually, the state schools will have all the weakest students being taught by all the weakest teachers. They will devolve into juvenile asylums where children go to be forgotten.

This is unacceptable because children are not to blame for their parents’ incapacities or for their disadvantageous personal characteristics. The education system is attempting to provide a good education for all citizens, even those citizens who get no support at home and/or have personal difficulties. While there’s room for legitimate variation in what students learn so as to allow for students to pursue their individual tastes and passions and prepare themselves for participation in a diverse workforce, there is a big difference between training different students for different social roles and giving some students exclusive access to training on the arbitrary basis of whether or not their parents are willing and able to effectively advocate for them. School choice exacerbates inequalities among students from different backgrounds and slowly chokes the life out of the state schools. It is not okay for the state to abdicate responsibility for these people and label that failure success on the back of skewed test results.

We need an approach that recognizes that there is only so much the schools can do to make up for the tremendous diversity in the quality of students’ home environments. The state needs to do more to support and guide parents, ensuring that they have access to adequate resources and that children are not forced to grow up under stifling conditions. This means ensuring that parents are not overworked or underpaid, it means subsidizing childcare, and it even means appropriate sex education to help people avoid having children they are unprepared to care for. Many parents have a strong drive to externalize the causes of their children’s difficulties, blaming the schools or popular culture when the problem really resides at home. They need to recognize that they have a critical role to play in their children’s education and need to work with the state to find ways to adequately fulfill that role when circumstances make it difficult. The state cannot think of education merely as a school issue, but as a wider social issue influenced heavily by cycles of poverty and abuse. Only by breaking those cycles can we improve low-end educational performance.