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The Sinking Ship of Public Education and the Failure of Choice

By Jon Hale

School bus
Photo credit: Jill Rose

News of the projected 30,000-student enrollment drop in New York reveals, yet again, that public schools are suffering from long-term effects of the pandemic. Beyond this, however, insidious politics are at play. Dramatic student disenrollment also illustrates that privatization efforts through charters and homeschooling have benefitted from the pandemic.

The net loss shows, rightfully, how our public schools continue to fail the students, families, and communities they serve. Yet public schools were already resting on a faulty foundation. Gutted by severe budget cuts, surveilled by police, and scorned by anti-intellectual and racist curriculum from extremists, public schools have suffered—by design.

As I explain in this passage from The Choice We Face, school choice is not a fair, nor desirable, solution. Touted as silver bullets and a panacea prior to the pandemic, charter schools, private academies, virtual schools, and homeschooling all promised better choices. They became more appealing during the pandemic. Contrary to popular beliefs, the choices are not equal. The best options on the menu are limited by one’s access to make the best choice—which is limited by money, race, and access to schools.

Rather than focus on creating more choice through public funding and taxpayers’ dollars, solutions begin with those still in public school, out of necessity or choice. There are still over 900,000 students in traditional New York public schools.

History and a critical read on the research compel us to show up and serve students still enrolled in public schools, rather than cutting funding for the majority for the benefit of a few.


Milton Friedman has won, even beyond the economic theory that earned him a Nobel Prize. His greatest legacy is advancing school choice and inspiring one of the most comprehensive reform movements in educational history. For the last ten years of his life, he and his wife, Rose, committed themselves to privatization and school choice. As he noted in their joint autobiography, “Rose and I feel so strongly about the importance of privatizing the school system that we have established the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation with the sole mission of promoting public understanding and support of the measures necessary to achieve that objective.” With their foundation—now called EdChoice—the Friedmans worked to steer the school choice movement into the safe harbor we know today. As the conservative pundit Cal Thomas opined after Friedman’s passing in 2006, “If school choice becomes the norm in America, it will be Milton Friedman’s real legacy and every poor child who is liberated from a failed government school will owe him a lasting debt of gratitude.” The choice movement is forever indebted to its savior.

Friedman’s ideas have eclipsed and surpassed in popularity the desegregation movement that defined the era of his first foray into school reform politics in the 1950s. Yet his ideas remain supported by an unchanging systemic racism that undercuts the righteous demands of advocates connected to a longer struggle like Howard Fuller and Sarah Carpenter. A structurally racist system will never give real power to historically marginalized communities and, therefore, a fair chance at success.

Millions of families of color, as well as poor Whites, stand to lose, as they truly have no choice but to enroll their children in underfunded, segregated schools—public, private, or charter. Choice has provided a safety net for some, but the majority are in peril. Dave Dennis, a civil rights activist who led CORE in Mississippi during the 1960s, mobilizes communities to demand quality education as a constitutional right today. He employs the apt analogy that school choice provides a life raft for the few who can escape the sinking ship of public education. The remaining families—majority-Black, -Brown, and poor—are left on the ship as the nation watches, critiques, and largely refuses to extend a helping hand.


The theoretical edifice of school choice crumbles under the crushing weight of racism in the United States. Race is the key to understanding how school choice has failed to deliver its promises in any equitable way. The forces of racism, which Friedman relegated to a footnote in his seminal essay, now dominate the implementation of school choice. Choice is essentially all about race. Historically, all of American public education has been shaped by race. In the antebellum era, since education for slaves was explicitly forbidden, Whites excluded Africans and African Americans at the advent of public education during the mid-nineteenth century. After the Civil War, education was racially segregated by law in the South through the 1950s. The tumultuous period of desegregation from the 1950s to the 1980s then shaped education policy, affecting the experiences of millions of students since then. If choice works according to Friedman’s economic theory, then race is not supposed to motivate decision-making. Yet it does. It also illustrates the toxicity of the very culture around choice.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s argument from 1935—that our society does not permit the genuine integration necessary for a democratic education of all students, particularly Black students—remains painfully true. His observation that “race prejudice in the United States today is such that most Negroes cannot receive proper education in White institutions” is still experienced daily. Such institutional racism precludes what Du Bois called “that sort of public education which will create the intelligent basis of a real democracy.”

The strict economic argument for choice is that competition, the market, and the “invisible hand” will improve schools, but one cannot assume that corporate interests seek to empower Black communities, communities of color, and people living in poverty. If society cannot integrate its schools, it cannot integrate the very institutions of capitalism founded on the backs of enslaved people and their descendants. Nor will the individual advocates and captains of industry willingly share decision-making power and wealth generated by that same system. A few families of color or families in poverty may benefit, to be sure. However, the masses of those dependent on public education will not be integrated into the for-profit governing system.

Reports on resegregation in choice districts and schools illustrate the depths to which the system remains controlled by wealth and White supremacy. In essence, BIPOC families and families living in poverty remain segregated and excluded from the genuine privileges and benefits that choice is supposed to provide. In New York City, over 13 percent of the student population is enrolled in a charter school. Of this number over 90 percent are Black or Latinx students as compared to their being 68 percent of the total public-school population. Washington, DC—one of the first cities ordered to desegregate after the Brown decision—enrolls nearly 50 percent of its total student population in a charter school. At the same time, 70 percent of students of color attend segregated schools in which 90 to 100 percent of the student body is Black or Latinx. Chicago, the ideological birthplace of school choice, shows similar trends. Studies have reported that only 20 percent of traditional public schools and only 7 percent of charter schools are racially diverse. As education scholars Erica Frankenberg, Gary Orfield, and other researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA concluded, “Charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

There are situations where choice has in fact reversed desegregation trends. Duke University researchers found that North Carolina, after rolling back the busing mandate and implementing choice in the early 2000s, showed signs of White flight and resegregation. After fifteen years of choice, public schools became nearly 15 percent less White while the state’s charter enrollment grew to over 62 percent White. In Indianapolis, a city that embraced choice under Mike Pence’s 2013–17 tenure as Indiana governor, 80 percent of the student population is Black or Latinx, yet magnet schools there are over 80 percent White. In cases such as these, when choice is available, it is largely driven by the interests of White parents, not by Black demand. As Nikole Hannah-Jones noted, “White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is White. . . . If their neighborhood school is Black, they want choice.”

The inherent racism of the system is apparent in cases where choice has been leveraged as a way to improve public education, like in Memphis. Federal education officials and choice advocates alike viewed the city as a model site for reform. The ambitious plans to turn around schools in the Achievement School District there entailed many of the factors that attracted parents to choice—not just the right to choose a school but also new management, innovative ideas, and a promise of quick, transformative change.

Whites, however, wanted nothing to do with it. In 2014, not even five years after Tennessee launched its ambitious takeover through choice policies—with hefty federal support under President Obama as well as investment from philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates—six outlying suburban towns seceded from the Memphis school district. With assistance from the state legislature, the suburban districts had begun to talk of secession at the same moment that the state merged the city school district with the surrounding suburbs. They seceded one year later. The move was clearly driven by race and class. The city district served a population that was overwhelmingly Black—over 90 percent of the students were people of color. Nearly one-third of families served by the city district lived below the poverty line, compared to only 11 percent of the areas that seceded. Segregation persisted, and economic fissures deepened. Memphis schools were forced to cut their budgets—a reported $90 million the first year after secession—as they lost tax revenue from the districts that seceded. They were also pressured to close dozens of schools, and they laid off or pushed out more than five hundred teachers. At the same time, one of the new suburban districts, Collierville, began charging tuition to families from outside the attendance zones to maintain a “neighborhood school.” The same district also approved $95 million in bonds to fund a new high school and athletic facilities.


Dating from 2000, 128 communities across the country have attempted to secede from their public-school districts. Of these attempts, 73 have been successful, 27—including the case in Gardendale—have been defeated, 17 are ongoing, and 11 have become inactive. Though small in number, such attempts indicate dissatisfaction with education reform and also validate Du Bois’s assertion from a century ago: the system does not provide the equity and support needed for Black children and other children of color. The wave of attempts to secede from majority-Black and -Latinx school districts merely reifies the sanctity of the “suburban veto.”

Some Black advocates like Howard Fuller have continued to argue that persistent segregation does not matter or it does not matter enough to shape educational reform initiatives—that it merely conforms to a racist, unchanging history. Yet, to many, integration is important. We know that integration promotes Black achievement, particularly if it is consciously incorporated into education policy. Despite fierce resistance to it, desegregation after the 1954 Brown decision cut the “achievement gap” by half across the nation, boosting the test scores of millions of students. Particularly when placed in a wider historical context that measures scores over time and through an intergenerational perspective, integration and the federal policies supporting it were effective in improving education for all students.


About the Author 

Jon Hale is a professor of educational history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an advocate for quality public education. Hale’s research in education has been published in The Atlantic, CNN.com, Education Week, the American Scholar, and the African American Intellectual History Series. His books include The Freedom Schools, To Write in the Light of Freedom, and The Choice We FaceFollow him on Twitter at @ed_organizer.