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."