School Choice is a Sleazy Carnival Game

By James Comans, editor at MSEDBLOG

School Choice is a sleazy carnival game, and Betsy DeVos is the queen sideshow barker.

Image from

You know how the scheme works- the carnies roll into town from parts unknown, pump in some music and neon lights to dazzle you, and they give you… an opportunity. A game to play. And if you win, there’s prizes in store! All just a bit of fun at the Grifter Brothers’ Semi-Annual Carnival Spectacular!

You size up the midway and decide to take a chance. Maybe not the weight guesser. His voice is just creepy. You’re not bothering with that sketchy basketball shoot, either. But the ole ping pong ball in the fish bowl game. That sounds promising. So you hand your five dollars over and size up the platform on your quest for the big, fluffy bear. What’s the harm? A few bucks for a chance at a great prize!

That’s essentially what’s happening to education policy in America, only instead of big, fluffy bears, we’re being asked to gamble for our children’s futures. School choice- a neoliberal education reform being promoted by shadowy organizations like ALEC and the Trump Administration– is the flavor of the decade for improving schools.

But don’t be fooled.  “School choice” is nothing more than a marketing scheme. It’s a way to convince you to take responsibility yourself for government’s failure to fund your child’s education. It’s a carnival trick.

“But isn’t something new needed to fix our schools?”

Sure. But not games and distractions.

Here’s what I mean: Educating people is expensive. And the people footing the bill don’t enjoy that part, generally. We will try everything under the sun to avoid spending more money on schools. Mississippi, for example, has underfunded schools 19 times in the last 21 years, and our state is perennially ranked near 50th in the nation.  Rather than own up to the fact our schools are chronically underfunded, our legislature has proposed every education reform they can get their hands on.

Is money the only problem? Of course not. But it’s hard to blame the curriculum when your superintendent is cutting his own salary to make sure the buses still run.

School choice is this idea that American education would be better off if we would just use our taxes to fund private schools instead of publicly accountable school districts. And until we can fully privatize education, we’ll call it… giving parents the “choice” of where to send their kids.

It’s a trick. It’s like letting you throw a ping pong ball at the fish bowl of your choice instead of guaranteeing you a prize. You might win, you might lose. The lure to play the game is the chance to take home the Big One. But most people don’t.

“But charter schools and vouchers might actually be better for kids!”

Not so. Some schools are better; some are worse, whether public or charter. Widespread results for school choice initiatives have been at best mixed. That’s why the school choice lobby relies almost exclusively on catchy slogans and idealistic philosophies in their persuasion: Shouldn’t parents get to choose the school their children go to? Wouldn’t public schools be better if they had to compete with somebody for their funding?

But do they actually have a proven track record of success? No.

Do they always operate with transparency and accountability for your tax dollars? No.

Even if you somehow win the big, fluffy bear- your kid gets into a great school- your attention is managed to ignore the fact that somebody else had to lose. Otherwise the carnival would go broke. Unless funding is increased overall, some kids will still have to attend underfunded schools.

“But choice and competition will help public schools too!”


School choice is from the ideologue’s dollar bin of “should-work” plans, like Trickle-Down economics and Clear Pepsi.  Somehow in the mind of a choicer, schools with collapsing roofs will magically churn out high performing engineers if you just plop down a charter school nearby.

Unfortunately, this effect has never actually proven successful from school district to school district.

But in the end, they’re giving me a chance to send my kid to a great school!

They’re not giving you anything. They’re taking your tax money and they’re kicking to the curb any responsibility for ensuring your kid gets a quality education.

Spending less of your tax money on education under the guise of “choice” will inevitably strand some Mississippi kids at schools starved for resources, while ideologues wait for the “market” to sort things out. If your kid gets stuck at a bad school, it’s not the government’s fault. They offered you a “choice” somewhere down the line.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy the bear? Yes, it would cost more than the $5 it takes to hang your hopes and dreams on a ping pong ball, but it’s a much better strategy to get the prize you want.

We should bypass all this school choice double talk, and recognize the fact that better schools will require better funding.  We should put adequate funding right in our public schools’ hands, and say, “This money is for the Big One. I’m not going home empty handed anymore.”

James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *