Why 'School Choice' is not the 'Civil Rights Issue of Our Time'

[Editor's Note: Its one of those salvation stories that indicates when you are dealing with someone of a religious zealotry. The CHARTER SCHOOL THAT SAVED MY SOUL (AND LIFE) version of reality. Every meeting of the Chicago Board of Education is subjected to a droning sound from charter school touts that basically always says the same thing. According to the script that has been followed by charter school speakers for years at CPS, the child would have been murdered or seriously damaged had he/she been forced to go to the local public schools (which is almost never named), but thanks to the charter school -- usually UNO, CICS, or Noble Network -- the child was not only "saved" but flourished. The narrative had really been unchanged in Chicago since the first fraudulent version was posed by "Miracle Teacher" Marva Collins during the 1980s. That lie was refuted by Substance by 1984, even though it had by then been reported as far as "60 Minutes." But in 2013, after years of many of us noting the lie, scholars are pouring in to debunk the lie and expose the liars, be they the President of the United States, the First Lady, the U.S. Secretary of Education, of some kid barely into college. Below is the latest critique of the BIG LIE of charter schools. Thanks to Diane Ravitch for sharing it through her blog (which everyone reading this should read). George N. Schmidt].

Texas Education Review. Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue. Julian Vasquez Heilig, PhD

The University of Texas at Austin. Volume 1, pp. 83-94 (2013) Available online at

Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue, Julian Vasquez Heilig, PhD, The University of Texas at Austin

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps in minority versus majority performance (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Public concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political, parental, and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the solution for poor and minority youth (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue. Scott (2013a) argued that philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s conjuring of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market- based school choice.

It is notable that the school choice movement counts on prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice. For example, Mayor Castro and other prominent Latina/os in San Antonio, Texas have escalated their search to recruit and attract corporate charters such as the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), BASIS and Great Hearts to the city. In Milwaukee, The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), heavily funded by politically conservative-leaning foundations, has lobbied the public for vouchers for more than a decade. Gloria Romero, former California State Senator, authored a parent trigger bill in California – legislation that allows the current parents in a school to vote to turn the school over to an alternative management organization. In our recent Twitter exchange, Romero framed her bill as a civil rights remedy for low - performing schools. Clearly, African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions to press for school choice as an alternative to the status quo as our nation has consistently and purposefully underserved students of color (Scott, 2011).

What is surprising is that unbridled choice proponents harp about the limitations of traditional public schools but rarely discuss the predominance of the peer-reviewed research literature that demonstrates limited or no effect of choice (e.g. vouchers and charters) on student success (Scott, 2010).

Are there examples of student success in charters? Of course, as is there also in public schools. However, the most prominent study of charter schools across the nation showed that nationwide only 15% of charters perform better than traditional public schools (CREDO, 2009). While it is true that you can find an occasional peer-reviewed study that shows small effects for vouchers, the predominance of the research literature in the United States and elsewhere in the world shows no statistical significance or limited effects (Portales & Vasquez Heilig, 2013). What is also notable about the rare voucher study that shows a positive effect is that they are typically churned out by researchers primarily funded by foundations that are ideological school choice advocates (Vasquez Heilig, 2013).

The most prominent financial supporters and proponents of the school “choice” cause are the Koch brothers, American Legislative Executive Council, Walton Foundation, Broad Foundation, Heritage Foundation, and Foundation of Educational Excellence. Why are politically conservative foundations and organizations spending millions of dollars funding studies and lobbying intensely for vouchers, parent trigger, and charters?

Why are these the “choices” continually pressed in the public discourse? (There are of course other forms of choice that these groups usually ignore such as magnets and intra-district choice). What do all of these forms of choices have as a common denominator? The common denominator of the venture philanthropist school choice movement is that they are consistent with a neoliberal agenda (Wells, Slayton, & Scott, 2002).

According to Wikipedia (2013), Neoliberalism is a political philosophy whose advocates support “economic liberalization, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and decreasing the size of the public sector while increasing the role of the private sector in modern society.” Each of the choices pressed by neoliberal-leaning foundations move the responsibility and funding of public education into the hands of organizations external to the traditional democratically-controlled public school system.

As a result, school choice advocates are a motley alliance between those whose primary focus is greater opportunity for historically underserved students of color – civil rights – and those that want to see the state reduce its role in public education and shift the responsibility to the private sector. Will both the neoliberals and civil rights proponents have their goals realized via school choice? We have already seen a full transition from a public to market provision of education in South America. The Chilean government purposely divested in public education and created a universal voucher system (Portales & Vasquez Heilig, 2013).

What are the observed results of a national “choice” market? School choice has enhanced and accelerated inequality (Auguste & Valenzuela, 2004; Gauri, 1998; Hseih & Urquiola, 2004; Hseih & Urquiola, 2006). Chile is a prime example of how choice magnifies inequality because in a market approach, capital rules the day. Students without enough capital (test scores become capital in addition to currency) are denied access in Chile. If you go to the grocery market without capital (e.g. cash), you will come away empty-handed. The same economic principle has functioned in the entirely market-based Chilean education system.

The Chilean case demonstrates the detriments in a market-based education system: Low-SES students with marginal test scores are disproportionally hurt by an educational system dominated by choice. The international media has reported several waves of national protests by students and families against the escalation of stratification fomented by the Chilean school choice system (New York Times, 2011).

Still not convinced that choice can be problematic for poor and minority students? Welner (2013) identified twelve ways that charter schools avoid students of color and special populations – a dirty dozen. National Education Policy Center (NEPC) (2013) described Welner’s study:

"Charter schools may be public, but they can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways. This is done though a dozen different practices that often decrease the likelihood of students enrolling with a disfavored set of characteristics, such as students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty (para. 1)."

So school choice is just that, charter schools can choose. NEPC continued:

"When charter schools fail to serve a cross-section of their community, they undermine their own potential and they distort the larger system of public education. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way,’ says Welner. ‘The task for policymakers is to redesign charter school policies in ways that provide choice without undermining other important policy goals. For instance, being innovative doesn’t require being selective or restrictive in enrollments (para. 5). If I only offered you two choices for dinner: A vegan

burger or tofu – is that really choice? Clearly, if you do not like the choices that you have on offer for dinner, or in your neighborhood school, you are going to want to choose an alternative. "

I proffer that the meta reason that school choice is a prominent discussion in our time is simple: Our policymakers have failed to provide what is necessary for poor and minority children to succeed in their neighborhood public schools. Considering this, the choice discussion must be reframed. It is not a mystery in the United States what works in schools. In each city there are successful private schools and public schools on the other side of the tracks/highway/river etc. So what should parents already be able to choose from in their existing neighborhood public school? I have produced a concise list of my prior empirical work to redefine this choice:

• Curriculum that represent diverse populations (V asquez Heilig, Brown & Brown, 2012);

• An accountability system that doesn’t stigmatize students who score poorly on only one measure of success— high- stakes tests (Vasquez Heilig, Young & Williams, 2012):

• An accountability system that doesn’t hide students who fall through the cracks while simultaneously claiming fantastic results (Vasquez Heilig, 2011a);

• An accountability system that recognizes the unique needs of English Language Learners relative to high-stakes testing (Vasquez Heilig, 2011b);

• Teachers that have more than five weeks of training (Vasquez Heilig & Jez 2010);

• Teachers that have more than 30 hours of “alternative certification” training (Vasquez Heilig, Cole & Springel, (2011);

• Schools that don’t have a 40% attrition rate for their African American students (Vasquez Heilig, Williams,

McNeil & Lee, 2011);

• Schools that have vibrant public arts programs (Vasquez Heilig, Cole & Aguilar, 2010);

• Schools that have low student-teacher ratios (Vasquez Heilig, Williams & Jez, 2010);

• Schools that don’t have to cheat and game the system to make their numbers for NCLB (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008);

• Districts and schools that actively seek to desegregate schools (Richards, Stroub, Vasquez Heilig, & Volonnino,


• Schools that utilize innovative disciplinary approaches to stem the school-to-prison-pipeline (Cole & Vasquez

Heilig, 2011);

• Schools that have teachers in every classroom who are teaching in field and have extensive training in classroom management, curriculum development and pedagogy (Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, & Vasquez Heilig, 2005)

This concise summary of research is not an exhaustive list of the important choices parents and students should already be offered in their neighborhood schools. However, the current neoliberal direction of educational policy has reduced these forms of choice in neighborhood schools. Thus, as Friere (2007) suggested, the lack of an adequate education in certain schools is clearly purposeful. Take for example, the Texas Legislature’s (more than twenty year) obsession with high-stakes testing and accountability coupled with $5.4 billion in cuts from education (Vasquez Heilig, Williams & Jez, 2010).

The same legislature that has argued that Texas’ public schools are inadequate are the same individuals responsible for inadequately funding education— landing them in court numerous times over the past three decades. In New York City and Chicago, you see a similar game plan, first fiscal cuts and then “choice” peddled as the solution (Scott & DiMartino, 2009).

Colin Powell once famously stated about the Iraq war, “if you break it you own it.” In my view, that is the end goal for public education for neoliberals. They seek to transfer public education from the state budget to the family budget. Their bamboozled bedfellows are civil rights proponents who support unbridled neoliberal approaches to school “choice.” So if you are a “choice” proponent interested in civil rights – understand that in markets there are winners and losers. In the case of choice, the long-term losers in a large-scale market-oriented education continue to be historically underserved students of color and special populations.

This essay demonstrates that school choice is a civil rights issue, but not as currently framed.

First, school choice, on average, does not produce the equity and social justice that proponents spin (Wells, Slayton, & Scott, 2002). Second, school choice has created a motely alliance between privatizers and traditional civil rights proponents that is not in the best interest of poor and minority students (Wells, Lopez, Scott & Holme, 1999). Scott (2013b) posited: Can we imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, or Rosa Parks marching on Washington to secure the right for parents to compete in lotteries for spaces in free-market schools?

Rather than these figures, the managers of such reforms in fact seem to be emulating another iconic cultural figure: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist whose 1962 best-selling book was entitled ‘Free to Choose’ (para. 12). Moving our schools from the public sector to the private sector is a false choice. Instead, as the research concisely demonstrates, parents and students should be able to choose a neighborhood public school with the important characteristics that are already established in the research literature and consistently observed in wealthy high-performing public and private schools. Access to those choices in democratically-controlled neighborhood public schools is the civil rights issue of our time – large-scale privatization of education is not.


Auguste, S., & Valenzuela, J. P. (2004). Do students benefit from school competition? The Chilean experience. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, MI.

Cole, H. & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2011). Developing a school-based youth court: A potential alternative to the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education, 4(2), 1-17.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (June 2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA.

Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D. J., Gatlin, S. J., & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2005). Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(42). Retrieved from

Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Gauri, V. (1998). School Choice in Chile: Two Decades of Educational Reform. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press.

Hsieh, C., & Urquiola, M. (2004). When schools compete, how do they compete? An assessment of Chile's nationwide school voucher program. (Working Paper No. 10008). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hsieh, C., & Urquiola, M. (2006). The effects of generalized school choice on achievement and stratification: Evidence from Chile’s voucher program. Journal of Public Economics. 90, pp. 1477- 1503.

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stratification?: Understanding how universal vouchers have impacted urban school districts’ enrollment in Chile. Working Paper, The University of Texas at Austin.

Richards, M., Stroub, K., Vasquez Heilig, J. & Volonnino, M. (2012). Achieving diversity in the Parents Involved era: Evidence for geographic integration plans in metropolitan school districts. Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, 14(1), 65-94.

Scott, J. (2010). Review of “Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education,” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from

Scott, J. (2011). Market-driven education reform and the racial politics of advocacy. Peabody Journal of Education, 86(5), 580-599.

Scott, J. (2013a). A Rosa Parks moment? School choice and the marketization of civil rights. Critical Studies in Education, 54(1) 5-18.

Scott, J. (2013b, August 5). Key flaw in market-based school reform: a misunderstanding of the civil rights struggle. The Washington Post. Retrieved from sheet/wp/2013/08/05/key-flaw-in-market-based-school- reform-a-misunderstanding-of-the-civil-rights-struggle/

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Vasquez Heilig, J., Cole, H. & Aguilar, A. (2010). From Dewey to No Child Left Behind: The evolution and devolution of public arts education. Arts Education Policy Review, 111(4), 136-145.

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Choice as a Civil Rights Issue

Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He currently is an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African American Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at The University of Texas at Austin.


December 4, 2013 at 1:30 PM

By: Paulette Lane

Too Many Citywide Charter Schools in my Community!!

I've proposed a Magnet High School for the Douglas Community to CPS for years so that our neighborhood school Pershing Elementary Magnet could have a high school for it's Magnet students. However it is CPS who keeps locating citywide Charters to my community. Perspectives IIT Math & Science Charter, Young Womens Leadership Charter, Youth Connection Alternative Charter High School are all in my community. CPS even gave funding for a Prologue Aternative High School to try and start up in the core of our Historic Homeowner District in the closed Griffin Funeral Home but our community fought against it. We are plaqued with citywide Charter Schools that we did not want and now CPS has just proposed to move "Urban Prepo to our business corridor on 35th in the DOuglas Community when ChiArts relocates to larger quarters.

CPS needs to work on the Dunbar high school problem.(Citywide school of failing students) They have received years of complaints against the notorious Dunbar High Schools Students who are a daily public nuisance on the 35th street business corridor. We also had a shooting by a Youth Connection Charter student who does not live in our community. These citywide at risk students are making our community feel unsafe. It's my feeling that CPS wants shooting to occur on this corridor on a daily basis, not just an isolated incident. Why else would CPS place an all boy high school on this corridor, in very close proximity to Dunbar High School?? The Chicago Military Academy is also on this same corridor and is known for having conflict with Dunbar Students.

What does CPS think will happen if Urban Prep boys start engaging Dunbar girls? Our community is filled with thousands of citywide at risk youth coming into the area through Charter High Schools and they converge on the 35th street corridor which is less than a block from my house and our neighborhood is overwhelmed from the blight that they bring to the community through public nuisnace activity and crime!!

Is there a cap for the number of charters that can locate to a community? Our neighborhood school Phillips is grossly under-enrolled and filled with homeless students from other communities. Our community does not see Phillips or Dunbar as options and this is why we propsed a Magnet High School for our performing Magnet students at Pershing Elementary.

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