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Conservatives: “School Choice” Will Punish Public Schools for Wokeness

It’s National School Choice Week, the annual right-wing campaign against public education and teachers’ unions. But this year, its supporters are making a new argument.

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott
Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg/Getty Images
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott

It’s National School Choice Week, that annual right-wing P.R. campaign to defund public schools that pretends to really just care about the children. But this year’s NSCW comes with a twist: Amid conservatives’ outcry over history lessons on race and LGBTQ rights and awareness in schools, some proponents of the “educational freedom” movement are pitching it as an antidote to the supposed indoctrination of students by leftie teachers and administrators.

In an interview on Tuesday with Fox News host Harris Faulkner, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott framed “school choice” as a way for parents to give their children a proper education free of woke lessons. “ABC, not CRT—it’s that simple,” said Scott, referring to “critical race theory.” “We need to teach the basics of education. We don’t need to teach people that, because of the color of your skin, you’re an oppressor or a victim.” (Scott introduced a resolution on Monday to officially recognize National School Choice Week. He was joined by many Republican senators, including Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Rick Scott—and a lone Democrat, Dianne Feinstein.)

Ian Kingsbury, of the Educational Freedom Institute, and Jay P. Greene, of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, in December laid the foundation for this new spin on “school choice,” which they argue can “help level the playing field” in the struggle between “conservative families” and “progressive teachers” who want to “proselytize” in the classroom. “All that school choice would do,” the authors wrote for Fox News, “is shift some of the jobs from public schools dominated by Democrats to other schools whose values would be more likely to align with those of the parents in [rural] areas.”

You won’t, however, hear such politicized rhetoric directly from the organizers of this week’s extravaganza, the National School Choice Awareness Foundation, which prefers instead to cloak its highly political aims behind seemingly inoffensive banalities such as, “Every child deserves a quality education.” NSCW organizers claim to “raise positive and equal awareness of traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling,” and many news outlets happily (or ignorantly) play along, offering uncritical coverage of NSCW events that parrots the group’s “positive” messaging. But make no mistake: The goal of NSCW is to gut public education, destroy teachers’ unions, and enrich unregulated private education companies.

“We are nonpolitical,” claims NSCW’s website, but this is demonstrably false. “School choice” has been a staple of conservative politics for decades, and NSCW was launched in 2011 as the brainchild of the Gleason Family Foundation, the conservative philanthropic arm of a machine tool manufacturing company. Media Matters for America reports that the foundation, which “gives to a number of education privatization and Koch-affiliated groups that oppose unions,” spent $1.7 million on NSCW in 2012, and nearly $2.7 million in 2013. According to the latest IRS filing available, from the fiscal year ending in March 2020, its contribution ballooned to nearly $10.4 million.

NSCW used to boast about its conservative backers. A web archive of its website from 2016 shows that NSCW partnered with the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as well as groups with ties to Betsy DeVos (the American Federation for Children) and the Koch brothers (the Libre Initiative). The proposals advocated by these backers aim to shift public school funds toward charter and private schools through policies like vouchers, education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits, which end up forcing public districts to make do with less while propping up a volatile, often unaccountable market-based approach to children’s education.

The week’s events are designed to put a human face on these dangerous ideas, and they have grown in scope over the past decade. NSCW says it planned or promoted 26,299 community events and activities in 2022. Local news coverage of the rallies and school fairs often features photos of smiling children with the group’s trademark yellow scarves performing onstage—there is a new official NSCW dance routine each year—or taking part in raffles. References to the political subtext of the events are typically nonexistent, nor is the neutrality of the phrase “school choice” brought into question. Instead, stories abound this week about “Parents, lawmakers pushing for educational freedom during National School Choice Week,” or “Students flock to Pa. Capitol to promote school choice.”

Perhaps the most egregious coverage of NSCW this year comes from WJAR, an NBC affiliate in Rhode Island. The only interviewee in a 46-second segment on an “education fair” that kicked off NSCW was a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Children, a lobbying organization founded and, until 2016, chaired by Betsy DeVos; The Intercept reported in 2021 that for years, the group had been producing fake news segments for syndication on local news networks through its “Ed Newsfeed” project. (WJAR is part of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has a record of making its local stations recite identical conservative messaging.)

But the true goal of “school choice” proponents is plain as day for any reporter that cares to look. Senator Scott, on Fox News, put it bluntly: “Big labor unions have taken over public education. That’s bad for parents, bad for kids, bad for America.” And some see the debate over race and gender in schools as just the opening they need to convert more parents. “Families should not be stuck in an education system that actively undermines parental rights and ideologically grooms children,” argued Kaylee McGhee, a deputy editor at the Washington Examiner, on Monday. “They deserve the freedom to yank their students out of a school that disrespects their values and send them to one that better fits their needs.”

But McGhee gave the game away later in her piece—that “school choice” is really about forcing school districts to align with right-wing ideas of education, or otherwise wither away from a lack of resources. “School choice also gives families the power to hold the public education system accountable—especially if it tries to force its ideology onto their children,” she wrote. “Schools that disregard parental rights will soon find that they’re hemorrhaging funding as families take their taxpayer dollars elsewhere, and they will have no choice but to embrace reform.”

The school choice movement has long tapped into parents’ legitimate desire to offer their children the best education possible. Now, the anti-woke panic has offered it a new and perhaps even more potent avenue for starving public schools of funds and turning communities against them. But there’s something—or rather, someone—missing in these diatribes from McGhee, Scott, and others: the children themselves. What about the students who remain in public schools whose funds are being drained as a consequence of “educational freedom”? What about the ones whose parents believed the rhetoric and put their kid in a fly-by-night charter school that went out of business? Did any of them really have a “choice” in their fate?