Review of Schneider, M. (2016)

Schneider, Mercedes. (2016). School Choice: The End of Public Education? New York: Teachers College Press.

Reviewed by James Gleckner

Drawing from a variety of sources, including media coverage, scholarship, and her own experiences, Mercedes Schneider’s (2016) School Choice: The End of Public Education? offers a vigorous defense of “the traditional community school” in America at a time when it faces tremendous challenges from advocates of market-based school choice policies (p. XVIII). In this compelling and readable account, Schneider clearly explains the dangers of implementing neoliberal-influenced corporate school reform policies, in particular voucher and charter school expansion. Rather than fostering innovation and improvement through competition, Schneider argues that these under-regulated forms of school choice compete with traditional public schools on an unfair playing field, and will thus lead to the destabilization of traditional, compulsory public schooling.

Schneider covers an impressive amount of ground in a relatively short volume. Beginning with a refutation of the oft-voiced argument that American schools must do more to “compete globally,” Schneider then provides a brief history of the origins of compulsory public education in the United States, the role of school choice in subverting school desegregation rulings, and economist Milton Friedman’s role in the spreading of the neoliberal gospel. The bulk of Schneider’s book deals with charter schools, from their origins to their current failures. Schneider ends by detailing the role of charters in the latest federal education bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and imploring the public to act in defense of public education. Although Schneider’s arguments against charters and vouchers should come as no surprise to scholars of education policy, School Choice should succeed in its goal of enlightening and empowering a popular audience.

In spite of the rhetoric that America needs school choice in order to catch up with countries like China and South Korea, Schneider argues in her first chapter that in fact American schools should avoid the path of these test-centric countries and instead look towards the Finnish model of valuing teachers and allowing their creativity to flourish. After this brief international comparison, Schneider delves into the history of compulsory schooling in America. Schneider is quick to note that this history is “messy,” and that for too long public schools existed primarily to serve White males, but she is also laudatory of the idea of education as a public good that prepares citizens for life in a democratic society (p. 6).

Again demonstrating her willingness to deal head-on with American education’s flaws, as well as its triumphs, Schneider then describes how “school choice was a tool used in certain states to intentionally defy federal desegregation mandates in the latter 20th century” (pp. 15-16). Here, Schneider uses her personal history to great effect by examining the use of vouchers and other school choice mechanisms as a means of avoiding integration in her hometown outside of New Orleans. Schneider deftly connects this history with the failures of contemporary voucher programs, both in the U.S. and abroad. Schneider explains that these programs have led to fraud and discrimination, rather than the parental empowerment envisioned by “the father of school choice,” Milton Friedman (p. 27).

From there, Schneider goes on to trace the evolution of charter schools from their original conception as small, innovative, teacher-led programs to their current form as an under-regulated, test score obsessed “replacement for the neighborhood public school” (p. 79). Schneider argues that while it has had some bipartisan support, the rapid expansion of charter schools as competition for traditional public schools has been primarily facilitated by conservative, corporate interests, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Walton Foundation, and hedge fund managers. According to Schneider, charter schools have an unfair advantage in this competition because, among other reasons, they are able to siphon money from public schools, escape regulations, and to handpick students by gaming the system. Schneider’s accounts of the many instances of fraud in the service of profit at the hands of charter school operators should give even the staunchest charter supporter pause.

Schneider leaves the reader to consider the central role of charters in current federal education law, which Schneider argues is biased in favor of charter schools over traditional public schools. Schneider rightly notes that turning back the tide of charter schools will not be easy, as “ideology defies reason and evidence…and because the profit motive serves self and does not really care if children and communities are cheated” (p. 156). Nevertheless, Schneider offers some suggestions for how concerned citizens could work towards putting a stop to some of the most malicious impacts of charter schools.

Although Schneider’s work is well-written and argued, some readers may question her use of sources. Schneider, for example, relies somewhat heavily on encyclopedias (although primarily for background information), and is not afraid to discuss the advertisements that appeared on her web browser while conducting research for the book. It is also not out of the question that Schneider’s repeated descriptions of Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish-American founder of one of one of the largest charter school chains in the U.S., as a “cult leader,” as well as her anger that his schools “do not seek to hire qualified American teachers” could appeal to the xenophobic instincts of some readers (p. 144). Nevertheless, School Choice provides a timely, accessible account of the dangers of contemporary instantiations of school choice policies and a vigorous defense of traditional, compulsory public schools.

References
Schneider, M. K. (2016). School choice: The end of public education? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.