Student Centered Funding, School Choice And Racism

When the Los Angeles school board met last week, one of the items on its agenda was voting on the new Student Centered Funding (SCF) plan. As California Policy Center’s Chantal Lovell explained several weeks ago, SCF authorizes school principals to make decisions as to how district-allocated funds are spent, with greater sums of money going to some groups of students—special needs kids, English language learners, etc. In the 2018-2019 school year, there were 27 school districts nationwide—predominantly large urban districts—that used this spending model with varying degrees of success. But at its September 14 meeting, the L.A. school board put a temporary hold on the vote. A district spokesperson told me the board was just not ready to proceed with the plan, but assured me it would be pursued in the near future.

The response from the teachers union to implementing SCF in L.A. schools has been strident. The United Teachers of Los Angeles trotted out a massive digital ad-buy in August as part of an effort to kill the SCF measure. UTLA, of course, is threatened by the funding plan because the education dollars follow the child, which the union asserts reeks of school choice. UTLA insists that this model will “literally turn our students into blank checks for those that want to implement voucher schemes and turn public education from a public good to a private commodity.” High in the union’s pantheon of evildoers, the despised former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gets cited as a conspirator. And the trite “siphon-off desperately needed funding to those that want to privatize our schools” meme also makes an appearance.

Actually, SCF’s link to the school choice movement is scant; there is no private school voucher or educational savings account connection whatsoever. The only similarity is that the plan does not fund the huge, unaccountable systems that are often the foundations of today’s public schools, but rather takes into account the needs of individual students, and this drives the central planners crazy. But while the unions are adept at bullying a seven-member school board, it’s much more difficult to hold sway over thousands of school principals. As the socialist magazine Jacobin laments, “Wherever the student attends, their ‘backpack of cash’ would go with them.” To that extent, yes, SCF could possibly be a very small step in the direction of true parental choice. Speaking of which . . . 

Jon Hale, a professor of educational history at the University of Illinois and author of The Choice We Face, penned a piece for the Chicago Tribune which claims that “school choice was grounded in racism from the start.” The logical fallacies in the article are flagrant. While some parents did use choice for racial reasons back in the day, to suggest that choice in and of itself is racist is farcical. It’s akin to saying that some people use money for nefarious purposes, hence money is evil.

In the real world, the “choice is racist” zealots have no arrows in their quivers. In fact, it is our current zip code-mandated education system that fosters racism, as most neighborhoods are not well integrated and neither are the schools. A system of universal choice simply allows parents to expand their education options. As researcher Greg Forster reports, 10 empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on segregation and nine found that the programs reduced it, while one found no visible difference.

Additionally, the American Federation for Children reports that 65 percent of voters support school choice, with 69 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Hispanics in favor, according to a recently released survey. An EdChoice poll shows that when given a fair description of school choice types, a great majority are in approval. For example, 80 percent of black and Hispanic parents support ESAs, and 76 percent of white parents are in favor. Finally, another poll by EdChoice speaks volumes. While 83 percent of children attend government-run schools today, only 39 percent of parents (of all colors) would choose those schools if given the option.

If one is going to follow Hale’s line of thought, damning fingers should most definitely be pointed at unions. Writing in Commentary in 1959, Herbert Hill explains that in various industries “trade unions practice either total exclusion of the Negro, segregation (in the form of ‘Jim Crow’ locals, or ‘auxiliaries’), or enforce separate, racial seniority lines which limit Negro employment to menial and unskilled classifications . . .  In the South, unions frequently acted to force Negroes out of jobs that had formerly been considered theirs.” Perhaps Hale should do some research and write an article that claims “unions were grounded in racism from the start.”

According to the latest numbers, 18 states have created seven new choice programs and expanded 21 existing ones this year. To be sure, the greatest benefactors are poor and minority families who can now escape from some of the nation’s worst schools. The losers are the teachers unions that wind up with fewer dues-paying members when families choose the private option for their children. So it’s not a stretch to say that the unions most definitely have a stake in maintaining an anti-choice, racist education system.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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