Philanthropy, Privilege and School Choice

Written by: Lori Bezahler

Date: November 03, 2015

Privilege. Although often unacknowledged, it permeates the philanthropic sector and was put squarely on the table at NCRP’s Philamplify debate last month.

As a panelist, I was asked to consider whether market driven strategies can be expected to drive equity in education. That question requires us to focus not on whether individual schools do a better or worse job, but rather on the structures that are most likely to produce a just system. And we must consider the privilege – or lack of privilege – of those the system is to serve.

In education, when we make parents “consumers,” we undermine the collective responsibility to educate all of our children that is central to our democracy. When markets and “choice” become the drivers of policy, our connection to the overall social mission of schooling deteriorates, and the public commitment to funding public education can be expected to diminish. And if state budgets for education are any indication, that does seem to be the trend.

Choice makes sense to so many of us in positions of privilege, who direct philanthropic investments and public policy. Markets have worked for us: we have the financial and social capital to choose the supermarket we want to shop in, the kind of work we want to do or where we want to live. However, unless we examine the relationship between privilege and access to markets, we will ignore the constraints that many families face in a market driven education system.

Applications may only be available in English, meetings are held in times and places that are not easily accessible to families without a car or flexible work hours, the school may not have services that some families need, such as transportation, after-school programs or participation in the federal free lunch program. All of these factor into families’ ability to access the range of “choices” a system has to offer. Even for parents of means choice creates challenges, and so parents in New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and elsewhere are paying private consultants as much as $2000 to help position their children for the most desirable schools, not something all parents are able to do.

Students are also explicitly excluded from schools participating in education tax credit programs which use tax dollars to fund private school vouchers. In Georgia, for example, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) has documented the exclusion of LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ parents. Further, the vouchers rarely cover the cost to the family; the Milton Friedman Foundation puts the average tax credit scholarship at less than $1000, not nearly enough to cover the cost of tuition at any private school. It’s not a surprise then that in Georgia, according to SEF’s research, the average gross income of families receiving the tax-funded scholarships was more than $35,000 above the gross average income of half of all Georgia taxpayers.

This is not a market of schools being selected by families, but rather, a market of students being selected by schools. And since markets are driven by competition, some children will win and some will lose, by design. The very antithesis of equity.

But we can do better and, in fact, when we have made a commitment to equity, we have. In 1971, African American students performed about 39 points worse than white students in reading. With the enforcement of integration that figure was cut basically in half, down to a gap of 18 points by 1988.

But today, schools are resegregating, and school choice is contributing to that racial and economic resegregation. The Washington Post reported that white children in San Francisco have become more concentrated in the best elementary schools since a school choice lottery system was implemented across the city, as families with greater access and ability to navigate the complex rules for student assignment are able to “work” the system. Duke University has documented the fact that white families in North Carolina have used charters as a way to choose segregation; more than two thirds of the state’s charter schools are highly segregated, while only about one third of the state’s public schools are. The Duke researchers work also showed that white parents in the state indicated a preference for schools that are less than 20 percent black, although black parents preferred schools that are racially balanced.

It would be a mistake to think that I am arguing for the status quo. In fact the Hazen Foundation has spent more than two decades helping parents, students and communities build the power to drive an agenda for their schools and communities rooted in the values of equity and justice. They know that alone, as consumers and competitors, only a small number of them may succeed, and are committed to doing better for all our children.

Lori Bezahler is president of the Edward Hazen Foundation. Follow @LoriBezahler on Twitter and join the #PhilamplifyDebate conversation.

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