The Limits of Choice

The Limits of Choice

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking at CPAC, February 23 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Last week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced—to the astonishment of many commentators—that historically black colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” HBCUs, she continued, “are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” She has since apologized. But with these few words, she put on full display her incredible ignorance of history—the history of African-American education, first and foremost, but also the broader, checkered history of “choice” in America.

Most obviously, for the bulk of our nation’s past, going to a black college was not a product of choice in any sense of the word. HBCUs were founded in the nineteenth century and thrived for much of the twentieth precisely because black people had, in the aftermath of the Civil War, almost no other choices in terms of higher education. DeVos, in an effort to score a contemporary political point, seems to have written the long, sad history of forced racial segregation right out of the story of American higher education, as she herself was finally forced to acknowledge.

But the constraints imposed by segregation, of course, didn’t end with Jim Crow; they continue very much into the present. To assume that greater choice now is an adequate remedy is also to disregard history.

DeVos’s rhetoric depends on the idea that expanding choice—meaning both opportunities to pick for oneself and options from which to pick—is always a positive good. In this she is hardly alone, as the debate on the new House-backed health care plan has reminded us in recent days. Even when they disagree about what needs to chosen, Republicans and Democrats alike have long peppered their policy statements with tributes to the value of “free choice.” Think “reproductive choice,” a coinage of the 1970s, as well as “school choice” and now health care choice too.

Yet the absolute stance on choice championed by many of today’s Republican leaders disregards not just the question of who gets to choose. It also turns a blind eye to the varied quality of the choices long available to different sectors of the population. It fails to recognize the unequal conditions under which all choice-making, even when “free,” take place. And it willfully ignores the way that, in any society, the choices of some necessarily affect the choices available to others.

In the case of schools, to say that African Americans have generally had worse choices when they have had them at all is to state the obvious. It is also patently clear that “access” to more options has not necessarily translated into having better ones. When the selections open to those in poor urban or rural districts remain largely subpar (as recent studies have found to be the case in most states and cities that have experimented with vouchers for charter schools and for other non-public options), there is no advantage in having greater numbers of them—just as there is no advantage to having more health plans to pick among if none of them provide adequate coverage. Increasing marketplace values—or as House Speaker Paul Ryan called it this week, “embrac[ing] competition and choice”—may be the mantra of business, but there is little evidence that it has ever worked for either schooling or health care.

It is also worth asking: if a few better options were to appear, who would likely benefit? History suggests only those with the ability to be high-information choosers, the kind of people with the time, energy, know-how, and connections, as well as funds, to learn in detail about all the options out there and weigh them according to a useful scale—a scale on which long-term educational outcomes may well pale as a criterion for choosing in comparison with, say, proximity to home and childcare or cost of transportation. But that hasn’t stopped the spread of the language of personal responsibility. Just this week, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz announced that “Americans have choices, and they’ve got to make a choice” before suggesting that people of limited means “should invest in their own health care” over a new iPhone. Chaffetz, too, was forced to walk back his comments after widespread ridicule, but continued to insist that “people need to make a conscious choice.” “I believe in self-reliance,” he added.

This is the logic of today’s right whatever the arena. When individuals fall on hard times or fail in contexts in which other possibilities exist at least in the abstract, the blame goes to them and their families for making “bad” choices in the first place. Few policymakers, moreover, stop to note that the choices of some—say, to use a voucher to pay for one’s child to attend a charter, private, or parochial school, or to move from a city to a suburb with better schools, or even to join one insurance pool or another—have real-life consequences for the possibilities available to others. That applies to all publicly funded goods. If choosing is all about consumers taking their dollars with them, the poorest of institutions and the populations they serve can easily find themselves deprived of the funding, personnel, and programs that they vitally need if they are ever to try to improve.

For Betsy DeVos and her Republican colleagues, the ideal world would look something like a giant shopping mall, where everyone is free to choose to purchase the products he or she likes best (assuming a bit of budgeting)—and HBCUs, like religious schools or for-profit schools, are but one more menu item that the savvy customer can take or leave, buyer beware. It shouldn’t take a social-media schooling in black history, though, for DeVos to realize that more options rarely equal more rights.


Sophia Rosenfeld is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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