What Early Childhood Education in the United States Can Teach Us About School Choice

by Denisha Jones

In January, proponents of school choice held their annual National School Choice Week to “raise public awareness of all types of education options for children.” Originated in 2011, the national awareness effort continues to grow and shine “a positive spotlight on effective education options for every child.” Although charter schools continue to grow, the majority of children in the United States attend traditional public schools. The slow rate of growth does not deter choice advocates from demanding access to charter schools, vouchers, and other non-public education options.  One argument often espoused by supporters of choice is that children should not be trapped in a failing school because of their zip code. Parents should have a choice of where to send their child to school, regardless of where they live.  This line of reasoning supports the argument that when parents and students become actual consumers of public education, public schools must improve to attract more consumers or risk closing. This market ideology has been trying to break into the public education market for several decades. And now that Betsy DeVos, a staunch supporter of school choice, is the Secretary of the Department of Education, choice advocates believe they now have a friend in the position to push the choice agenda into more states and districts.

Supporters of choice often say that public education and the teachers’ union have a monopoly on education in the United States and that we need to give the market-based approach a chance to improve the system. Given the persistent educational opportunity gaps that relegate children of color and low-income students into under-resourced abandoned public schools, the time is ripe to push an expansive experiment with the market approach. But we do not need to experiment with the market approach to know that it will likely exacerbate inequities in our current system. All we need to do is look at our early childhood system that is a perfect example of the market-based approach, to know that quality will only increase for those who can afford to pay top dollar. 

Unlike the universal public education system, our early childhood education and care system are a hodge-podge of public and private offerings that vary widely, state by state, and even within districts.  We have the federally funded Head Start program for low-income young children; state-funded preschool programs typically offered through public schools; nonprofit and for-profit child care centers; religious-based child care centers; employee-sponsored children care centers; and family daycare home providers.  Depending on where you live, parents of young children can choose between some or all of these settings when looking for child care. But does this array of choice ensure a high-quality system? What we have learned from the research is that it depends on how much money you are able to spend. Wealthy parents can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars per year for private preschools and, therefore, receive the highest quality, while low-income parents, who can barely afford rent and groceries, have no choice but to enroll their children in child care programs that are within their financial means but often are lacking in quality.  The result is many children enter kindergarten behind their more privileged peers and we see the effects of the opportunity gap take root. 

Is this what we want for our public education system? We already know that public schools are unequally funded based on property taxes and thus poor children, especially poor children of color, regularly receive a substandard curriculum, lack basic resources, and are disproportionately taught by new or uncertified teachers.  Will an increase in school choice fix our uneven system or will it exacerbate the current zero-sum game that rewards children fortunate enough to be born into the right families? Critics will be quick to point out that because public education is funded by the states, all parents will have an adequate amount of money to choose an education for their child, so it is not fair to compare their vision of choice to our current early childhood education system.  That is true, but will that funding be enough to completely fund “school choice”? We have learned from the voucher experiment in DC that often the money given to parents is not sufficient to cover the tuition at private schools. The market will ensure that some type of school is available for parents to choose, but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and those who can afford to pay the least will receive the least quality choice. 

If our early childhood education system is any indicator of what a choice system can produce, we should ask ourselves why many early childhood researchers push for universal early childhood education as a solution to our current system. Public education was created to be the “Great Equalizer,” not a market enterprise. We need democratic solutions that promote democratic ideals instead of choice experiments that are likely to reinforce inequities and unequal outcomes.