In 2015, newly-confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech arguing for school choice programs like charter schools and vouchers. Halfway through her speech, she played a video about Denisha Merriweather, a student who received a voucher through Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program. “If it wasn’t for the scholarship,” Denisha explained, “you would probably meet me on the corner with a baby, trying to make ends meet.” Generations of Denisha’s family members had dropped out of the local public school. Only the state voucher program had given her a chance. According to DeVos, only programs like this one can provide “equal opportunity” and make the American Dream a reality.
For generations, opponents to publicly-funded, integrated education have relied on what historian Ansley T. Erickson calls a “distorting rhetoric of choice” to defend their policies. Stories like Denisha’s play a crucial role in this rhetoric of choice. They convey what every American wants to hear: that the schools provide children a route out of poverty. It does not matter if millions of children receive an inadequate education. If some small percentage of children, blessed with intrepid parents or good fortune, can get vouchers, or escape to charters, or otherwise break out of a broken system, then the system has done enough.
The rhetoric of choice does not pursue educational opportunity for all. Instead, it aims to provide just enough anecdotal evidence that the American Dream is alive to absolve the government from further responsibility in public education. To confront this limited view of public schools, it will be necessary to change how we talk about “equal opportunity” itself.
Though Betsy DeVos will be America’s next Secretary of Education, the historic opposition to her nomination represents a catalyst for progressive education policy. Despite years of relative consensus around “choice” policies, the DeVos nomination triggered a contentious debate over the means and ends of American education. After millions of outraged constituent phone calls, a 24-hour filibuster from Senate Democrats, and an unprecedentedly narrow vote for DeVos’s confirmation, her brand of “school choice” is under intense scrutiny. This moment represents a crucial opportunity to revisit the rhetoric of “equal opportunity” and redefine the schools’ mission. Against DeVos, progressive education advocates should advance a more ambitious American Dream.
The Rhetoric of Rescue
Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, explained why anecdotes like Denisha’s are so compelling. People against vouchers, she said, are “always opposed to the broad policy, but they [can] never reconcile their logic when thinking at the individual-kid level.” It is powerful to pull at the heartstrings by telling stories about individual children stuck in a dead-end school. As DeVos implored in 2015, “just think how incredibly arrogant it is to say to the mom of a 3rd grader, just wait, it will get better.” No time to discuss improving the whole system; we need to save this student immediately.
In focusing on the individual child, reformers like DeVos foreclose any discussion of big-picture educational changes. Theirs is a rhetoric of rescue, focused on saving a few motivated students rather than improving education for the nation’s 50 million K-12 students. Consider, for instance, the Florida Tax Credit Program promoted by DeVos. Her video touted that 59,765 students like Denisha benefitted from the program. In a state with over 2.5 million public school students, this number barely scratches the surface. Even if the tax program were extended to every single student, Florida would still have an obligation to provide effective schools to all of those children, whichever one they might “choose.”
But reformers like DeVos do not assert that it is necessary to educate everyone. Creating “equal opportunity” means building a system that produces token success stories. In fact, a broken system of underfunded, ineffective schools is essential to the story that DeVos tries to tell. If Denisha had been born into an effective school and given equal chances from birth, along with all of her classmates, there would not have been educational disparity for her to overcome with a voucher. You cannot tell a story of heroically saving a child without some danger from which they need saving.
The Limits of School Choice Rhetoric
A person can claim all day that they can fly. But, as the critic Kenneth Burke once pointed out, the ground will soon prove that person wrong. Similarly, the arguments employed by school choice advocates quickly break down when confronted with the demands of educating a whole population. In 2015, DeVos asked her audience to imagine two schools, an Alpha School and a Beta School. Alpha School is the “high-performing” charter or private school; Beta School is a “low-performing” public school. How, she asks, could anyone look a child in the face and make them stay at Beta School?
This simple either-or story quickly breaks down when it becomes the basis of education policy. Eventually, Alpha School will be full. Unable to take in more children, the remainder will end up in other schools—Beta School among them. Faced with competition, Beta School will have to improve its conditions, or die. But the more intrepid students leave Beta School for Alpha School, the harder it gets to improve. Each departing student carries their money with them. Beta School struggles to fill its classrooms. As course offerings dwindle and effective teachers depart, more students exit. Eventually, Beta School closes. Its students are distributed to other public or charter schools throughout the city. Those other schools, in many cases, face the exact same problems as Beta School.
In places that have carried out DeVos’s vision, this cycle repeats itself endlessly. Cities like Washington, DC and Chicago face a new round of school closures every three to five years. In New Orleans, where almost all traditional public schools have been replaced with charters, the cycle of closings and openings has become systemic. The same applies in DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where policies she promoted have produced a constant churn of instability, with a questionable overall net benefit for the city’s students. Nationally, charters have undermined teachers’ unions, heightened segregation, and smuggled religious teachings into public classrooms. Why do so many people still insist this person can fly?
Redefining “Equal Opportunity”
Despite the instability it creates, school choice rhetoric keeps the American Dream alive—in the narrowest possible sense. Technically, any child with the drive, the passion, and the resources could find their way to a better school. It might be harrowing, and it certainly could not happen for every child. But it is, in a sense, possible that any given child could fight their way out. If a family really cares, the argument goes, they will seek a voucher or choose a charter. Those unmotivated parents with apathetic children will deserve to languish in a failing school. That is the allure of “school choice.” It creates a rhetorical avenue, a way for reformers like DeVos to say the government has done enough.
DeVos’s view is, frankly, a cynical and unimaginative vision for American public education. A successful school system cannot be built strictly by moving some children out of Beta School, while shrugging our shoulders at those who remain for failing to exercise their “choice.” The real solution is far more difficult. Beta School needs the resources, the professionally trained and paid staff, and the public confidence necessary to offer its students a good education. Turning to school choice helps to uphold a myth, but it can never replace a true, robust investment in public education.
Improving American education requires wresting the meaning of “equal opportunity” away from reformers like DeVos. It means insisting on “equal opportunity” as not just a narrow escape route for the occasional voucher recipient, but as a sacred obligation to every child in America. It is through education, after all, that so many children discover their potential, their work ethic, and their motivation in the first place. For the American Dream to be more than a myth, education needs to be more than a linchpin in the meritocracy. It needs to be a foundation, accessible to all.