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Chris Lubienski is a professor of education policy at Indiana University. He wrote recently with Amanda Potterton and Joe Malin about the deceptive rhetoric of school choice rhetoric. Thirty years ago, the school choice movement boasted that charters and vouchers would “save poor children from failing public schools.” They claimed that private schools outperform public schools. Now we know that school choice does not produce academic improvement for students; that many pick their students and discriminate against the children they don’t want. “Success” for school choice means expansion of charters and vouchers, not better education for students.
Last week, Forbes magazine published an article on how “School Choice Keeps Winning.” Interestingly, “winning” isn’t defined as helping kids learn. Indeed, the article avoids that issue because evidence indicates that school choice is actually failing on that front. Instead, Forbes uses the term to celebrate the expansion of choice programs in many GOP-led states.
The language used in the Forbes article reflects a rhetorical strategy that school choice advocates have adopted in recent years. We (Joe Malin, Amanda Potterton, and Chris Lubienski) analyzed how language favoring educational choice is increasingly shaping U.S. educational policy for a new article published in the journal, Kappa Delta Pi Record. Key features of some dominant narratives include shifting the focus away from academic results (where choice advocates had, for years, insisted there were great gains). Instead, in view of a slew of recent studies showing students in choice programs experience a relative decline in learning gains, choice advocates like Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have been moving the goalposts to focus on personal narratives and claims of school choice as “liberty,” “freedom,” or a “civil right.” Public schooling is often framed as a “failing” enterprise, and thus a burden on the taxpayer and on poor families. This language often implies that education should be organized like a “business,” with families as “consumers” of the privatized benefits of schooling.
But we also note emergent, counter-narratives which support and envision a strong, broadly supported public education system. For example, in 2019 in Kentucky, superintendents joined together to oppose a bill that would create a scholarship tax-credit program for private schools. They engaged in urgent news press gatherings and via social media to highlight the importance of adequate funding for the state’s public schools. One superintendent said:
We’re all in this business to help students, we are in public education. And it’s a very simple fact that over the last ten years the percentage of funding from the state has continued to dwindle. The burden on local school districts has continued to increase. Teachers feel it the same that we feel it. Every one of our employees feels it. So, we feel very passionate and we’re all very united for this idea that we cannot continue to allow the state to siphon funds away from public education.
Another superintendent, illustrating real-time funding concerns they have, said:
You need to prepare and provide for all of our students, all of our learners, and 21st century learning is much more diverse than what it was 20 years ago. So to provide them specific needs at the expense of another funding mechanism or while we are losing specific funding streams has made it difficult. We are faced a choice: do we keep Read to Achieve or do we buy textbooks? Do we buy textbooks or do we offer in-house professional development? Those are difficult decisions, decisions that have been made, will continue to be made by myself and colleagues, to benefit our children. But it’s beginning to become very difficult, because you are getting to the meat of services to kids, and when that becomes a problem it inhibits their learning, it inhibits their opportunities, it disallows us to create additional avenues that they would be interested in pursuing, be it career choices or whatnot. So, it does become a very problematic scheme when you look at it in that way.
And this was all before the pandemic. So, now in 2021, we believe these concerns regarding public school funding are clearly still relevant.
The analysis finishes with talking about what lies ahead and why words matter in policy and practice amid continued, evolving efforts by some to further privatize public resources.
Malin, J. R., Potterton, A. U., & Lubienski, C. (2021). Language matters: K-12 choice-favoring and public-favoring stories. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 57(3), 104-109. https://doi.org/10.1080/00228958.2021.1935175