Divided We Learn

Giving parents more freedom to choose doesn’t guarantee better schools

Other countries offer clues about how effective nationwide school choice would be in the U.S.

Before she was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was one of the wealthiest advocates of the charter school and school choice movement in the country. After assuming her role in the Trump Administration, she became one of the most powerful. At her 2017 Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos began by asking the senators, “Why in 2017 are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?”

The school choice movement is, ostensibly, about giving parents the ability to use state and federal dollars to choose other schools – private, parochial, charter, even online schools – if they feel their local public school isn’t doing a good job. In the United States, 90 percent of students  go to public schools, usually schools assigned to them based on where they live.

In Devos’ model of school choice, students would receive vouchers, or a set amount of federal dollars, that would follow them to whatever school they choose. But critics say this system would create inequity, and allow federal dollars to go to private and religious institutions. And it might not help students do better. Research in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio has shown that students who use vouchers to attend charters and private schools in those states are performing worse on standardized tests than students in public schools.

All of this talk of DeVos expanding school choice nationally, and what the impact would be, got Sarah Butrymowicz thinking: “If [DeVos] were given sort of unfettered ability to do whatever she wanted to the U.S. school system, what would it look like?”

Sarah is senior investigations editor at The Hechinger Report.

To find out, she went to three countries where school choice is part of the national education model: New Zealand, Sweden and France. Sarah wanted to know if students were performing better there, and if the schools were less segregated by race and class than they are in the United States.

“These arguments about school choice in the United States, they don’t have to be purely hypothetical, purely theoretical,” she says. “We can look at other countries, and the messy complicating factors that get in the way of this ideal version of school choice that some people talk about.”

Listen to the Educate podcast to hear what Sarah discovered about how school choice is working abroad.

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