George Graham

“School Choice” is a Polite Term for Segregation

The “school choice” debate is heating up again, and the arguments in favor of giving parents government vouchers to send their kids to private schools grow more seductive every day. For one thing, the “private schools” are often run by religious groups, and a lot of Americans want their kids to be educated in a religious environment. For another, public school districts can be exasperating. Kids who live across the road from a perfectly fine school often have to get up at dawn to catch a bus to some other school miles away. And that can expose the kids to danger from traffic accidents – and, even worse, child molesters.

Obviously, most parents would rather have their children schooled as near to home as possible.

When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he tried to introduce a “school choice” voucher program, and he had a lot of public support. But the courts ruled the program unconstitutional. Now, he heads several foundations dedicated to “reforming” education.

I ask myself why a busy businessman like Jeb would take the time to advocate for school reform? He has enough to do without taking on such altruistic crusades. And, from what I know of Jeb (I met him a couple of times, my cousin, Colin, worked for him in the Caribbean, and I followed his activities while I was a reporter at the Tampa Tribune), he is not what I would call altruistic.

My instinct is to follow the money to see what’s really motivating the guy. And an editorial in the The Palm Beach Post provides this clue:

 His Foundation for Excellence in Education accepts donations from private companies that would profit from lax new laws that Florida and other states are rushing to enact.

Jeb is not alone. Here’s an excerpt from an eye-opening article by Peter Dreier, distributed by Reader Supported News this morning:

Many of the biggest contributors to the so-called “school choice” movement — code words for privatizing our public education system — are billionaires who … have gained significant influence in local school politics. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent contribution of $1 million to a political action committee created to influence next week’s (Los Angeles) school board elections is only the most recent example of the billionaire blitzkrieg.

Dreier writes that “one of the biggest of the billionaire interlopers has been the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, who have poured millions into a privatization-oriented, ideological campaign to make (Los Angeles) a laboratory for their ideas about treating schools like for-profit businesses….”

Since 2005, the Waltons have given more than $1 billion to organizations and candidates who support privatization, Dreier reports.

You might think, from reading the  arguments advanced by “school choice” advocates, that students and their families would benefit greatly from the “reforms” they’re proposing. But apparently it’s just not true. Dreier quotes a 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University as evidence of that.

The study discovered that “only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent actually offered children a worse education. In other words, on balance, charters make things worse, even though many of those schools “cream” the best students from regular public schools. Just this month, the same Stanford center released a study that called for stronger monitoring and review processes for charter schools.”

And the Palm Beach Post editorialized:

Former Gov. Jeb Bush has an undeserved reputation as an education reformer. Florida’s recent education progress has come not from implementing Mr. Bush’s policies but from cleaning up after them.

 As a reporter covering the school choice debates from time to time, my impression was that – more than anything else –  the movement stems from some parents’ desire to bring back school segregation. School vouchers would enable them to practice private discrimination with public dollars.

While the Supreme Court previously blocked states from using devices like vouchers and tuition assistance to promote segregation, recent rulings allow government support for religious schools, paving the way for “school choice.”

There’s a real and present danger here. Private schools pay teachers a lot less than public schools do. And the teachers tend to be less experienced and less effective as a result.

But the big-money backers aren’t concerned with the welfare of the students. They’ stand to rake in billions from “privatizing” education with the public’s tax dollars.

As the Palm Beach Post observes:

Taxpayers … should reach for their wallets, since (Jeb Bush’s) new big ideas involve transferring more public dollars to the for-profit companies behind him….

The editorial warns:

The sort of careless “reform” Jeb Bush advocates will end up with taxpayers fleeced and students and parents cheated. He has a reputation for reform. He has a record of making messes.

For whatever it’s worth, I say amen to that.

Photo above shows Jeb Bush with kindergartners at Tangelo Park Elementary School in Orlando on a tour to promote eading – and his Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Click here for Dreier’s article.

 Click here for the Palm Beach Post editorial.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for