Denisha Jones on Early Childhood’s Lesson for School Choice

With Betsy DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, choice has ascended to the top of the policy agenda.  Charter schools, vouchers, and other nonpublic options are proliferating—the grandchildren of free-market economist Milton Friedman, who viewed the elementary and secondary system as a monopoly in dire need of competition.

blog-big-intheparkStaunch proponents of choice view it as a solution for the nation’s persistent opportunity gaps. Denisha Jones, a national advisor to Defending the Early Years, where this post originally appeared, highlights the inequities of America’s market-based early childhood system as a cautionary tale.

Jones is an Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.  A former early childhood teacher and preschool director, she is pursuing a law degree, and has been active in the fight to stop the corporate takeover of public education since 2011. She also serves as a board member of the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out National.


By Denisha Jones

January marked National School Choice Week.  Established in 2011, this awareness campaign continues to grow and shine “a positive spotlight on effective education options for every child.” Although the number of charter schools has increased across the U.S., the majority of children in the United States attend traditional public schools. The slow rate of growth does not deter choice advocates from demanding greater access to charter schools and vouchers.

One argument espoused by supporters of choice is that children should not be trapped in a failing school because of their zip code.  According to this line of reasoning, when parents and students become actual consumers of education, schools will be forced to improve to attract more customers—or risk closing. This market ideology has been seeping into public education for several decades. Now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, choice advocates believe they have a friend in the position to push the agenda into more states and districts.

Advocates for choice often say that public education and the teachers’ unions have a monopoly on education in the United States, that we need to give the market-based approach a chance to transform the system. Given the persistent educational opportunity gaps that relegate children of color and low-income students to under-resourced, abandoned public schools, they argue that the time is ripe to push for this expansive experiment.

But we don’t need an experiment to discover that these strategies are likely to exacerbate existing inequities.  All we need to do is look at our early childhood system, where quality only increases for those who can afford to pay top dollar.

Unlike the universal public education system, America’s early care and education system is a hodgepodge of public and private offerings that vary widely, state by state, and even within districts.  We have the federally funded Head Start program for low-income young children; state-funded preschool programs typically offered through public schools; nonprofit and for-profit child care centers; faith-based child care centers; employee-sponsored children care centers; and family daycare home providers.

Depending on where they live, parents of young children looking for child care can choose between some or all of these settings.  But does this array of choice ensure a high-quality system?

What we have learned from the research is that money makes a difference. Wealthy parents can afford tens of thousands of dollars annually for private preschools, which are of higher quality, while low-income parents, who can barely cover rent and groceries, have no choice but to enroll their children in child care programs that are within their financial means but of lower quality.  The result is many children enter kindergarten behind their more privileged peers, and we see the effects of the opportunity gap take root.

Is this what we want for our public education system? We already know that schools are unequally funded based on property taxes.  Poor children—especially those of color—regularly receive a substandard curriculum,  lack basic resources and are disproportionately taught by new or uncertified teachers.  Will expanded school choice fix our uneven system?  Or will it perpetuate the current zero-sum game that rewards children fortunate enough to be born into the right families?

Critics will be quick to claim that, with state funding, all parents should have an adequate amount of money to choose an education for their children. But the reality is another matter. More affluent families have always had the means to buy into school districts in zip codes that have higher property taxes and spending per student.  We have learned from the voucher experiment in DC  that often the money given to less advantaged parents is not sufficient to cover the tuition at private schools. The market will ensure that some kind of school be available to parents, but—as the saying goes—you get what you pay for.

If our early childhood education system is any indicator of what free-market choice can produce, we should ask ourselves why many researchers continue to push for universal access.  Public education was created to be the “Great Equalizer,” not a market enterprise. We need solutions that promote democratic ideals, not choice experiments that are likely to reinforce inequities and unequal outcomes.


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