The other problem with school choice

Published 11:15 pm Thursday, September 24, 2015

School choice in Alabama, pushed forward with the Alabama Accountability Act and charter schools, has an obvious problem. Every dime that goes to private schools and to charter schools comes from the Education Trust Fund. Consequently, private and charter schools improve at the expense of public schools.
Less obvious and possibly more damaging to Alabama are the political ramifications of school choice.
The last time school choice was a significant factor in Alabama K-12 education was after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools. Outside that disturbing time of “white flight,” Alabama voters have been on the same page when it came to improving public schools. Except for a tiny percentage of families who had access to, and could afford, private or parochial schools, every parent, prospective parent and grandparent wanted the best public schools possible.
This universal desire for improved public education especially was important in Alabama, where wealth and political clout go hand in hand. Partly because of pernicious reasons having to do with the role of money in politics, partly because low-income families are less likely to vote and partly because families mired in poverty have little tangible evidence of the value of a good education, middle- and upper-income families have been an important part of Alabama’s drive to increase the quality of public education.
Listen to complaints from the current Legislature about General Fund revenue, and the importance of this push becomes obvious. The state constitution, archaic and punitive to the poor, still was more generous in earmarking tax revenues for education than for other governmental operations. Even the power brokers who created a 1901 Constitution protective of wealthy landowners recognized the importance of public schools.
The main reason for this consensus – that public schools were a high priority, and maybe the highest priority, for the state – had much to do with their universality. The politically active and the wealthy had a vested interest in public school excellence. They either had children in public schools, or had family and friends who depended on public schools for their children’s success.
On the micro level, school choice is a positive. Some public schools are lousy. Some are dangerous. The ability to escape such schools is a positive for individual families and their children.
But that escape valve, valuable for an individual family, can be devastating for the school and for the other students who attend it. A family that can easily leave a school has no incentive to push for reform. Parents who otherwise would be demanding improvements – removal of deficient teachers, better programming and facilities, up-to-date textbooks – can instead abort.
School choice, which can be beneficial on the micro level, has devastating potential on the macro level.
No matter how much taxpayer money is funneled to private and charter schools, most Alabama children will continue to rely on public schools for their education and for their future prospects. As the Legislature tinkers with the education system, it needs to make sure all Alabamians remain invested in public schools.
When it becomes easier to leave a school than to improve it, Alabama’s best hope for the future will suffer.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox