School Choice

The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones Inadvertently Makes the Case for School Choice

What the author gets right—and wrong—about educational freedom


Yesterday I did something no one should ever do. I tweeted.

My message was in response to The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones about her views on the state of the school choice debate. It turns out that she and I are heavily in agreement, although it wouldn't seem so from the outset: "You already have choice," Hannah-Jones said Wednesday. "Homeschool or pay tuition."

The journalist is best known for her work on the 1619 Project, though she has written quite extensively and commandingly about education in America. "The greatest contributing factor to segregation today," I replied, "is that kids without choice are trapped in schools based on a zip code." In other words, telling them to just cough up tuition—especially when they're already paying for public schools via their tax dollars—is an approach that, in some sense, would naturally discriminate by class. Not everyone can afford to pay for both.

Her response hit at something interesting:

The rebuttal was puzzling, in that it wasn't really a rebuttal at all. That's not because she doesn't present a cogent, well-defined argument. She does. It's because she essentially outlines everything that school choice supporters already stand behind. Her response states the core case for school choice.

"One of the central tenets of school choice is that zip code shouldn't determine your school," says Corey DeAngelis, the national director of research at the American Federation for Children and a senior fellow at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website. "The current government-run school system is inequitable largely because families generally must send their children to a residentially assigned school even if it doesn't meet their needs….Based on her comments, it appears Hannah-Jones is on our side, even if she didn't know it at first."

Let's start with her core prong: that we should focus on "allowing poor, Black students to attend white, wealthy schools in neighboring municipalities." On this, we very much agree. No situation offers up a more appropriate microcosm for that argument than the dilemma experienced by Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black woman who used her father's address to enroll her kids in a better district—and went to prison for it. I wrote about her case here:

Because schools tend to be mirror images of their neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods generally beget poor schools, with fewer resources and less effective teachers. And as "rich vs. underprivileged" is often synonymous with "white vs. nonwhite," a minority heavy school is a predictive marker that achievement outcomes will be lower, according to the Brookings Institution. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, in schools with heavy Black and Hispanic populations, 75 to 100 percent were also eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. These students start life behind, and seldom acquire the financial means to close in on their wealthier peers.

Someone like Williams-Bolar should never have been punished for that decision—not only because it's patently absurd on its face, but because it shouldn't be against the law.

"Racial minorities broadly are already living in the school choice paradigm," says Derrell Bradford, president of 50CAN, an organization that pushes to ensure kids receive a good education no matter what street they live on. "It's [most] likely you just lie about where you live to get into the school that you want….Rich, poor, or otherwise, lots of communities of color are practicing school choice, they're just practicing it in all kinds of ways that aren't always legal."

It should be. And it appears Hannah-Jones and I also agree, at least in part, on the solution: eliminating exclusionary zoning and not funding students based on local property tax. She is fully correct: Both state levers disadvantage poorer, minority students and set students up to fail—a position that school choice supporters, regardless of political persuasion, do indeed embrace.

"If education were criminal justice, school finance data highlighting huge inequities would be the brutal videos exposing systemically racist policies in need of reform," write Aaron Garth Smith, the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, and Christian Barnard, education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, in The Hill. "Ideally, local property wealth should play no role in determining school funding levels. Dollars instead should be pooled at the state level and allocated transparently based on enrollment and student needs."

The data thus far are promising. According to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Brookings Institution, school choice initiatives can significantly improve outcomes for students of color. The same goes for low-income students, who might otherwise be trapped in a neighborhood with a low property tax haul and a steeper chance at success.

So why the divergence then? "I think Ms. Hannah-Jones is a brilliant writer and has done a lot to shed light on some deep and troublesome issues of the American public education system," adds Bradford. (I would agree.) "For me, and for a lot of school choice advocates…we also believe that the government has a role in financing schooling and running some portion of schooling, but to have a monopoly on it is unhealthy."

Even still, the ideological overlap here is significant, and it isn't at all surprising. As I've previously written, a majority of black and Hispanic Democrats support school choice, perhaps because, not unlike Hannah-Jones, they see the core tenets as beneficial to those in their communities. Teachers unions were major players in disrupting that natural bipartisanship, pushing back against charter schools where teachers are less likely to unionize.

What is surprising, and a bit disappointing, is that the subject has become needlessly polarized along partisan lines, to the point where even those who agree would prefer not to admit it.

"We're on the same team," says DeAngelis. "Now let's work together to remedy the injustices of the current system by funding students directly and truly empowering families. After all, education funding is meant for educating children—not for propping up and protecting a particular institution."

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  1. The way this works in Houston ISD, is that they have a lottery for poor kids to attend the “good” schools, while the rich kids get automatically zoned to them.

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  2. The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones Inadvertently Makes the Case for School Choice

    And for the licensing of hairdressers.

    1. carpet not even Ronald McDonald could love.

  3. Sounds like Nikole Hannah-Jones made an ideological version of an ‘own goal’.

    1. If wokies had brains, they’d realize that everything they say and do is an own goal. It’s been a long long time since any social class has tripped over their own tongues this often.

  4. Well shit. With her credibility, that now means that school choice is bad.

    1. More likely, it just means she is still lying.

    2. That’s is EXACTLY what I was thinking. Hey look, the CRT people want to eliminate single-family zoning!

      Libertarian: Oh shit. *rethinks philosophy*

    3. The irony is there an entire party making the argument for school choice. 2 if you count the big Ls.

      But they would rather focus on this one a senate primary in Ohio instead of supporting those pushing school choice.

      1. To be fair, a senate primary is pretty important. I’m just not sure it’s more important than the regime sending secret police to investigate and harass dissidents, the regime trying to spy on dissident’s finances, the regime working hand in glove with massive media corporations to suppress dissent, or the regime holding dissidents as political prisoners for the last 10 months.

  5. Suggested Additional Reference;
    “Education – Free and Compulsory” by Murray Rothbard;

    1. Rothbard really isn’t an authoritative reference for anything apart from Rothbard’s own dogmatic opinions.

  6. Nikole Hannah-Jones has written convincingly on school segregation & its lingering effects.

    We open with the butter-up of the serial fabulist.

  7. Public schools overtly make the case for private schools and home schooling.

  8. I have to assume that Nikole Hannah-Jones is an obligate teetotaler because if alcohol kills brain cells a single sip of beer would put her in a vegetative coma.

  9. ‘The rebuttal was puzzling, in that it wasn’t really a rebuttal at all.’ First clause misguided, second clause factual. Hannah-Jones is known for deliberately misstating the position of her opponents in order to make her position seem stronger. Not exactly a straw man, but a complete falsehood. She’s been doing it as long as she has been in the public eye, and likely longer. The behavior seems like it’s a character trait. One suspects if this instance were pointed out, the tiresome charade of claiming to be attacked and victimized, due to ethnicity and/or sex, would be next. It’s a common pattern, and the behavior is equally common, in confidence artists and bullies.

  10. you took on 1619 is your goal cancelation?

  11. Now ask her about the Teachers Union and the Federal Dept. of Ed; got a feeling that is where the differences will lie. And those are big, some are saying yuge, differences.

  12. We need a separation of school and state.

  13. Why is it that these hyphens always seem to have the wackiest hair? Kind of like a certain member of the Reason staff whose name I won’t mention.

    1. KMW’s purple streaks are sweet. Go, Cats.

    2. I’ll take KMW’s wacky purple highlights over Caryn Ann Harlos’s hot pink nightmare.

  14. Why stop at corralling citizens/students into School Districts? Why not Grocery Districts and Car Districts? If you live in Zip Code 12345, you should have to shop at the 12345 Grocery Store, where the ‘free’ food is crappy and there’s so little of it (a Woody Allen joke). And if you want a car, you should have to buy it from the corner used car crook. No fair going across town to the upscale suburbs to buy a shiny new Tesla or Honda. Consumers in any Zip Code in town can benefit from the competition and variety of a metropolitan free market in cars, TV sets and organic produce. Education should be peddled/provided the same way. If you have to pay for kids’ education with public money, which we have decided we have to do, then at least give parents vouchers worth $10k a year and let them choose to buy their kids’ schooling in any part of town they want from whomever they want. If tony white city or suburban neighborhoods don’t want black kids enrolling in their taj mahals, tough. Let them set up some new schools, public or private. Rothbard pointed out the stupidity, unfairness (and the ‘subtle’ racism) of government school districts decades ago, if I remember. Ms Jones is right to criticize Zip Coded school districts, but she’s apparently too brilliant to know why.

  15. “Nikole Hannah-Jones has written convincingly on school segregation & its lingering effects.”

    No, she has never written convincingly about anything. She is a lying propagandist.

  16. The pink-haired pinko is not interested in empowering parents. If parents could choose their kids’ schools they might choose a school which doesn’t teach that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery.

    1. I have to disagree with you. That hair is NOT pink! It’s a shade of red I used to see on old babushki in the Soviet Union. (I used to call it “Ronald Mc Commie” back then—a lot of those old broads really WERE Stalinists…)

  17. The problem is largely parent apathy that has caused schools to get away with being really, really, really crappy.

    Crappy parents won’t bother sending their kids to a good school. They won’t bother pushing their kid to succeed, either.

    Change the culture so kids will idolize scientists , not drug dealers or rappers or athletes. But that won’t sell records or shoes or drugs, so we won’t ever see that.

  18. I was homeschooled (there are plenty of facts why it’s a great choice – because of my parent’s poor income (mom was working from home, dad was away for most of the time), so I can say that we definitely need more options. But I can`t agree with all being said by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

  19. Raising the funds going to poor neighborhood schools will have ABSOLUTELY no benefit. Over the decades, school funding has gong up and up, with results going down and down. (Inflation-Adjusted K-12 Education Spending Per Student Has Increased By 280 Percent Since 1960). Regardless of what you think is the cause, it is NOT a lack of funds.

    As another earlier poster, Poorgrandchildren, said, “We need a separation of school and state.” Well said.

    We should give ALL education dollars to the parents to decide how to spend it. End ALL public school direct funding, k-12 and college.

  20. Based on her comments, it appears Hannah-Jones is on our side, even if she didn’t know it at first.”

    Her comments aren’t meant to be understood, this is just her way of calling everyone who disagrees with her racist.

    We know it.
    She knows it.
    We know she knows it.
    She knows we know she snows it.

    There’s literally nothing else to her entire political worldview.

  21. Hannah Nikole-Jones makes a case for school choice the way home invaders make a case for the right to keep and bear arms.

  22. School choice isn’t about allowing people to go to school regardless of ZIP code. That’s just a left-wing pipe dream aimed at making “wealthy” people subsidize public schooling. I support ending the system entirely.

    Stop trying to make inroads with ideological Marxists. There is no such thing as left-libertarianism. You really have to massage the language to make it seem like we have anything in common and even then, we all know that any “support” of libertarian ideas by non-libertarians is just a means to an end to get government into your life.

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