Thursday, December 15, 2016

Norm in The Wave: The Fallacies of School Choice Marketing Campaign, Part 1

The Fallacies of School Choice Marketing Campaign, Part 1
By Norm Scott

Published Dec. 16, 2016
In last week’s column (
I posted a letter from an anonymous Rockaway parent who disagreed with my stand on charter schools, vouchers, and Trump’s proposed education secretary, and school privatizer, Betsy DeVos. He feels that school choice is the answer to the problems our public school system faces. I will use the next batch of columns to try to elucidate why I oppose charter schools, vouchers, and any tax
credit for people sending their children to private and religious schools and why even a flawed public schools system is worth fighting for, while trying to fix the flaws. Balkanizing the schools and putting them under thousands of different management organizations, many of them out for a profit, will only
end up degrading all schools. (See Detroit where Betsy DeVos pushed through a system of totally unregulated schools that has lead to chaos.)

The parent contacted me through my blog and asked this
question. “Are you satisfied with the current state of public education (outside of the charter system) in NYC? If not, how would you improve the system?” Oy! This may take 10 years of columns. Let me say right up front. From almost the day I began teaching in Sept. 1967, it was clear the public school
system needed reform. By my 3rd year I also realized that the
teacher union, the UFT, often a partner with the then Board of Education in managing the schools, also needed reform and that if we wanted change we would have to address both. By 1970 I had become an educational activist which continues to this day. What to change the system to and how to do that has been up for discussion seemingly forever.

Now that I know there is at least one person who reads this column, I will address a bunch of the issues raised in future columns. But this time I want to explore the concept of public institutions.

Pretty much every part of the nation and every neighborhood in most urban areas have had an assumption over the past 150 years or more that there will be certain guaranteed public institutions. A police and fire station (though sometimes these are volunteers). A post office. Access to a hospital. Some sanitation services. Certainly, this has been true in New York City. These
institutions were built and managed by entities that were,
theoretically at least, under the control of a public process – people elected by us who were subject to some level of accountability. Both political parties pretty much signed up to support this concept.

Theorists like conservative economist Milton Friedman and the libertarian movement opposed many of these concepts of public services run by government. The idea of a public school system was one of the first institutions to come under attack (as has the postal service). After Regan’s election in 1980, privatizing interests began to see the trillion dollars spent on public schools as an enormous source of revenue. Thus was born the school choice movement. I will drill down a bit next time. Meanwhile, I urge my one reader (and any others) to check out these two recent articles in the NY Times.

New York Charters
Enroll Fewer Homeless Pupils Than City Schools
“…in at least 21 of
the 29 geographic school districts in the city that have charters, every charter had a lower percentage of students in temporary housing last year than the average among the traditional public schools in the same district.”

Here is an excerpt of Dec. 12, 2016 NY Times article, How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit
to Her Will on Charter Schools
“Detroit Public Schools, [DeVos] argued, should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools. ‘She is committed to an ideological stance that is solely about the free market, at the expense of practicality and the basic needs of students in the most destabilized environment in the country,’ said
Tonya Allen, the president of the Skillman Foundation…. Most charters have failed to improve on the dismal performance of the traditional public schools. High-performing national charter networks have stayed away because of the instability of the market. that will mean shutting down mostly traditional public schools, which in Detroit serve the neediest students, and further desert students in neighborhoods where charters have largely declined to go. “My complaint around this is not that you disagree,” said Ms. Allen, “but that you never could come up with another solution to deal with the practical issues of poor public policy that is not only eroding a traditional school system, but eroding all schools.”

Norms keep searching for answers and finding few at


  1. Thank you for taking the time to articulate your views on school choice. I look forward to learning how you would propose improving the public school system in the U.S. One thing I discovered in this election year as that too many people are talking at each other. Too few are talking to each other and actually listening. I imagine that when everything is said and done we probably agree a lot on the goals of education, we just disagree on how to get to that point. Hopefully this dialogue will lead to better understanding and help find a path towards common ground.

    Please tell me if I understand your objections to vouchers and charter schools. You believe:
    Public education is corner stone for creating a common American culture and any difussion would weaken our Republic.
    Charters and vouchers take precious money away from the traditional schools thus creating more disfunction.
    Public finding of religious schools violate the "No Establishment Clause" in the U.S. Constitution and the probition of public money being used in private religious schools in the New York State Constitution.
    For profit schools are fundamently skewed to favor the corporation over the students and the students will suffer.
    Is my summation correct, am I missing anything?


    1. Well, you pretty much articulated a lot of what I would say in a much better manner than I could. You wrote my column for next week. I will include your comment with some more depth. The shift of public funding from public schools and into private hands to be used as they wish -- not to say public funds are misused but people can be held accountable. What happens is that by offering people a chance to get out of public schools -- let's face it -- there are difficult kids these private entities don't want - we end up in the long run with either no public school system or a sliver only serving the kids no one wants. I know wealthy parents or middle class parents who send their kids to schools in the belief in public schools as an institution. Now don't get me wrong -- they can often work the system in ways that poor people can't -- but if you look at many schools doing very well now with mixed populations -- some people were the early edge of gentrification and schools turned around through diversity. Charters - especially the avaricious chains like Eva Moskowitz' have the intent - no matter what they say -- to skim off all the top performing kids they can and one reason she wants entry into public school buildings is to eventually be the only school in the building and therefore in defacto control of the real estate. One day her chain offers to take these buildings off the hands of the city -- and complicit and bought politicians rubber stamp this. Then we see condo city using what used to be public-owned space. That is the long run. While you may see the idea of "choice" now ultimately you have less choice as charter and voucher schools pick and choose. And if your kid doesn't make the cut of the school you want then you find you are in the woods - especially if your neighborhood public school no longer exists.


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