Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice Is Really About
reviewed by Bryan A. Mann - July 12, 2021
Title: Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice Is Really About
Author(s): Sigal R. Ben-Porath & Michael C. Johanek
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022661963X, Pages: 208, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com
The school choice policy debate typically features two opposing camps: One declares choice is the panacea to educational problems (Chubb & Moe, 1990), while the other argues school choice policy threatens democratically run schools (Ravitch, 2016). In Making up our mind: What school choice is really about, authors Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek suggest these two sides have the framing wrong. They argue that the debate about school choice ignores the historical fact that market-based choice in the United States predates the Republic. Meanwhile, they argue that despite this history, choice options still need regulation to meet community goals. The authors structure this middle ground argument in the book with an introduction, Part 1 about historical reflections, Part 2 about normative assessments, and a conclusion seeking to make up our collective mind about school choice. This new framing leads to their concluding remarks:
to make choice policy achieve its stated goals of improvement, equity, and greater freedom, opponents of choice need to recognize its long history in the United States and parents long-active role in shaping educational options for their children. Proponents of choice need to recognize the problematic nature of some of its more recent directions, and be open to specific forms of regulation that are as much a part of the history of this nation as they are a normative requirement. (p. 125)
The reframing exercise proves helpful, and the book adds a solid contribution to the discussion on school choice policy. Making up our mind begins a new direction in the scholarly conversation of school choice. However, the authors are too optimistic in their hope that deconstructing the school choice concept will soften the debate, especially considering the uniqueness of the version of corporate-driven school choice policy that has emerged throughout the world in the last few decades. Framing the discussion on what type and amount of choice offered to parents is noble. Still, the evolution of the school choice policy idea has reached a discursive point where scholars need to develop an entirely new vocabulary to discuss choice options that are different than the corporate-driven ones that dominate contemporary educational policymaking.
In the introduction, the authors explain different types of choices available to parents. They argue that contemporary debates on school choice focus too much on specific policies like charter schools and miss that parents choose schools in other situations, such as when they buy homes. The authors define how education is a mix of a private, public, and positional good. With this framing, they argue that school choice debates lack nuance. Instead of focusing on whether to have it, we should focus on questions of degree: How much choice for parents? How much control for the state? How much innovation? How much accountability? How much for the collective good? The authors goal is to raise these questions, not answer them.
Next, in Part 1, the authors show how education options in the United States have included market-based school choice for a long time, even before U.S. independence. They explain the different types of schools and choices throughout history and how even Horace Mann weighed into the debate as he decried private ventures on public education (p. 34). The authors show choice options emerged at times for both positive and negative reasons: Catholic schools to avoid religious discrimination as a positive example, and a tool for white flight from desegregation as a negative example (they use several other examples beyond these two). They end this section by examining more recent politically charged choice policy debates that include vouchers and charters. As the authors reflect on the current version of choice, they agree that the private, unelected, sustained, national, and publicly unaccountable systems influence on publicly funded schooling seems, in a sense, historically unprecedented (p. 78).
While the authors admirably cover the history of school choice and its different iterations, one still cannot help feeling that the contemporary version of choice policy backed by global corporate reformers does not belong in the same category as other examples of alternative school options. The authors allude to this, but using a single term, school choice, to capture and compare educational trends makes the term too encompassing. For example, the creation of a Catholic system in response to religious discrimination is not the same as Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to revamp an entire urban school district based on the belief that competition and market-based policy will lift children out of poverty (Russakoff, 2015). In the authors telling of history, both movements are school choice, but because the term encompasses disparate movements, it obscures key traits of each trend. In the higher education space, it is akin to saying the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) movement is similar to the University of Phoenix. Sure, they reflect choice, but should these two movements fall within the same category? Past Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos thought so, and predictable intense reactions followed (Jaschik, 2017).
Part 2 discusses a normative assessment on choice where the authors explain tenets of several debates about school choice. The authors explore how schools are a unique type of good: private, public, and positional. Then they explain tensions in the debate and link them to evidence. For example, the authors ask questions such as whose education is it? Are parents the best choosers? Does choice through privatization lead to innovation? There were several questions like these, and the authors carefully culled through the evidence and examined the best case for defending and opposing the answers to these questions. This section is fair and measured, and provides strong evidence about the different arguments surrounding the critical debates of current school choice policies.
While this section captures several normative tensions related to the school choice debate, the authors could have expanded the part on the tension between individual choices versus community choices. This tension is related but not the same as the private good versus public good discussion. A way to add to this conversation is to consider the pros and cons of market mechanisms versus democratic ones. In the school choice debate, proponents often use language like parents should vote with their feet to conflate market and democratic ideals, but they are not the same (Scafidi, 2013). At their best, democracies provide a venue for collective construction in lieu of hyper-individualized choices. Of course, most of the educational institution reflects either markets or incipient bureaucracies (Katz, 1971) and not democratic principles. This nuance is often missed in the contemporary school choice debate. The argument tends to drift into markets versus democratically run schools, but the argument is really between markets versus public bureaucracies. Perhaps democracy is the third way that the authors seek.
The authors conclude with a section showing how current policies are rooted in historical precedent and explain the newness of private interests and business influencing education. In doing so, they seek to enhance the school choice debate:
Presenting a clear opposition between zealous neoliberal, pro-business reformers on the one hand, and pro-union, anti-choice progressives on the other, does not fully capture the public views on the topic; nor does it properly portray the policy options available A more informed debate would focus on the options available to families, distribution of these options across class and race, and the opportunities children have to pursue a productive path, and how these options advance the collective public ends. (p. 123)
I appreciate the measured approach to the discussion and this book, and I agree with the sentiment of the conclusion. The conversations stemming from the book will be rich, and the authors achieved their goal of adding nuance to the school choice debate. However, I worry that modifying the term school choice will not be enough to guide us through this phase of corporate, market-based reform. Various interest groups weaponize the term to serve their own interests. Perhaps we need a new vocabulary altogether.
Ben-Porath, S. R., & Johanek, M. C. (2019). Making up our mind: What school choice is really about. University of Chicago Press.
Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Americas public schools: Choice is a panacea. The Brookings Review, 8(3), 412.
Jaschik, S. (2017, February 17). DeVos: Black colleges are pioneers of school choice. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/28/devos-criticized-calling-black-colleges-pioneers-school-choice
Katz, M. B. (1971). From voluntarism to bureaucracy in American education. Sociology of Education, 44(Summer), 297332.
Ravitch, D. (2016). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books.
Russakoff, D. (2015). The Prize: Whos in charge of Americas schools? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Scafidi, B. (2013, November 19). The decline of voting with your feet in American public school districts. EdChoice. https://www.edchoice.org/engage/the-decline-of-voting-with-your-feet-in-american-public-school-districts/