Charter School Disinformation About “Choice”

Perhaps no other word is more central to charter school discourse than the word “choice.” “Choice” is not only a central concept in charter school discourse but a persistent source of disinformation. Disinformation refers to the deliberate hiding of the real context and relations of things so as to disorient people and cause them to act against their own interests while making them think that they are acting in their own interests. It is a form of false consciousness or anti-consciousness, and we all pay a heavy price for it.

Advocates of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools that siphon billions of dollars a year from public schools have long valorized “choice” and used the rhetoric of “choice” to distort thinking, mislead the public, and promote the private interests of owners of capital. Under the veneer of high ideals, “choice” has consistently been used by school-choice advocates and corporate school reformers to eliminate a modern conception of government, education, rights, and social responsibility, and to promote the outdated idea and practice of an education marketplace where education is seen as nothing more than a commodity and parents and students are treated as consumers, not humans or citizens with rights that belong to them by virtue of their being.

Confounding Two Different Notions of “Choice”

“Choice” in the most basic and straightforward sense of the word is simply the act of selecting something from a list of alternatives. It is something people have been doing every day for centuries. But “choice” also has philosophical, political, economic, and moral dimensions to it because, like any major concept and practice, “choice” is conditioned by a specific type of society at a particular time in history. “Choice” does not exist as an abstract freedom, it is rooted in real arrangements in a definite kind of society; its content, use, and meaning are derived from the social, economic, and political conditions that prevail at any given time. “Choice,” therefore, is best viewed contextually, as existing in specific material space-time relations.

The main use of the word “choice” in contemporary charter school discourse is in its narrow consumerist free market sense, which also happens to be closely related to the ideology of individualism, contract theory, and private property. This point cannot be overstated. “Choice” in this sense is at the core of the “free market” dogma underpinning a major justification for the creation and expansion of privately-operated charter schools. When promoters of privately-operated charter schools talk about “choice” they do not want people to think of “choice” in its narrow consumerist free market sense. They prefer to have people think of “choice” as the simple and straightforward act of selecting something from a list of alternatives; i.e., something decontextualized, something that has nothing to do with consumerism, individualism, and the “free market.” This is what makes it easy for people to support “choice,” because who after all thinks that people should not have “choices” as such? We all value having some “choices” in our lives. This is how charter school disinformation works.

Charter school promoters continually fetishize parents as consumers preoccupied with making “choices.” They place parents and “parent power” at the center of their discourse and frequently repeat the view that in the competitive marketplace of schools parents should be able to exercise their free will and voluntarily shop for and “choose” which school to send their child to, even though it is really the charter school that chooses the parents and students, and not the other way around. This anachronistic outlook imbues many publications found on the websites of many national organizations that promote charter schools (e.g., Center for Education Reform, Center on Reinventing Public Education, and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), as well as most news articles promoting charter schools. Parents, especially poor and low-income minority parents in urban communities, are considered the supreme voluntary consumers, and charter schools, according to charter school supporters, exist to liberate them. “Choice,” in other words, is not rendered as a mechanism of privatization, it is instead portrayed as a virtue and a form of empowerment, as a way for students to transcend their zip code and escape “failing” urban schools. In this way, “choice” diverts attention away from the privatization of public education so as to diminish resistance to privatization. ((Privatization typically leads to corruption, higher costs, poorer services, and less inefficiency. It is no accident that corruption, fraud, and racketeering are widespread in the 30-year-old charter school sector. Every week someone in the charter school sector is being arrested.))

Only in a “free market” consumerist society that stresses individualism and the law of the jungle can “choice,” including “parental choice,” occupy such a central place. But what exactly is a consumer, and what is the relationship between consumerism, “choice,” and the “free market?”

A key thesis of the influential Austrian free market ideologue Ludwig Von Mises is that in capitalist societies the consumer is sovereign and the consumer makes “free markets” “work.” This central point, also made frequently by the prominent American “free market” economist and school-voucher supporter Milton Friedman, cannot be overstated. The consumer is considered the end-all and be-all in “free market” societies. The consumer is at the center of everything. He or she is the main point of reference because voluntary individual consumption is considered the main mode of living and identity in “free market” societies: “I consume, therefore I am.” But is this what people think should be the modern human personality in the 21st century?

In advanced commodity-producing societies, so-called informed consumers voluntarily choose the best good or service from a field of competing sellers and suppliers to satisfy their personal needs and desires. The individual consumer’s preferences and wants supposedly determine which goods and services are produced in society and in what quantity and quality. This means the “customer is always right” and that a merchant (e.g., an “entrepreneur” who starts a charter school) can perish if he or she does not serve customers better than his or her competitors. If merchants and entrepreneurs fail to provide consumers with the lowest-cost/highest-value goods and services, so-called informed consumers will voluntarily go elsewhere and spend their money there, that is, consumers will “vote with their feet.” This is sometimes called “dollar democracy.” For his part, Adam Smith, the father of capitalist economics, maintained that supply and demand in the “free market” are governed by “the invisible hand” of economic self-interest and that such a set-up purportedly gives rise to the best of all worlds.

It is also worth emphasizing that, culturally and psychologically, a main way to “hook the consumer” in a “free market” society is by creating new escalating desires on an uninterrupted basis, that is, by creating a psychological-emotional disposition that “desires desire” at all times but leaves the consumer only semi-satisfied at all times so that he or she is trapped in “consumer mode,” almost akin to a state of “no-war-no-peace.” The modern consumer is thus ever restless because he or she is always “chasing the next thing.” To be sure, consumerism produces a certain personality type and disposition.

What is needed at this time is a modern definition of the human personality and human rights, including the right to education. Parents would not have to “choose” which school to send their child to if society took up its responsibility and guaranteed fully-funded, publicly-governed, world-class schools available for free in every community. This is more than possible in the U.S. and many other societies.

Privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools have been great for owners of capital and their retinue, but bad for education, society, the economy, and the national interest. Treating education as a commodity and parents and students as consumers is not the way forward. A modern society based on mass industrial production cannot operate and develop well on such a basis.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.