National School Choice Week

Bureaucrats Are Trying to 'Control' School Choice

Administrators are squeezing out charters in the name of desegregation. The results: Parents are upset, enrollment is declining, and the schools are no more integrated than before.


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School choice has proven consistently popular among one very dependable constituency: parents. And unpopular among another: unionized teachers. The rapid spread of school choice over the past 20 years has triggered an increasingly fierce union pushback, setting up an inevitable clash.

Enter an insidious yet helpfully descriptive new term in policymaking: "controlled choice." Yes, parents still get to "choose" their desired schools, but public education bureaucrats get to "control" the final outcome. And lately, from New York to San Francisco, Charlotte to Polk County, the main criteria that matters is not student performance, but race.

"New York City Schools Got A Little Less Segregated This Week," my local City Councilman in Brooklyn, Brad Lander, wrote at the beginning of this school year. "The Winner Is Everyone." Well, about that.

In 2007, the Supreme Court barred school districts from assigning students to schools based on race. So instead they use income as the primary determinant, and characterize the resulting admissions changes as "desegregation." The goal is to have poorer kids, homeless kids, and English-language learners spread evenly among schools, while crossing fingers that parents won't bolt and all schools will improve. 

When this system was tried in my kids' Brooklyn school district, it ended up being hellishly complicated. The team that designed New York City's school-picking algorithm literally won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Fun fact: One of those designers didn't like where the system placed his kid so he opted out and chose a charter. And I don't blame him!

The good news this year is that some kids who had never even considered some of the high-performing schools both applied and were admitted in higher numbers. School choice for the win!

But turns out parents don't much enjoy being controlled. One-size-fits-all schemes may look good on paper to progressives, but when applied to their own special snowflakes, suddenly lefty parents start sounding as skeptical of central planning as F.A. Hayek, or at least quietly eyeing the exits. After more than a half-decade of increasing enrollment, my district's 6th grade class shrunk by a whopping 7 percent this year.

What happens in Brooklyn, alas, doesn't stay in Brooklyn. The same policy process is underway in Queens, and parents are already revolting. The New York City school chancellor is not winning many new converts to these changes with his habit of calling skeptical parents "racist." Meanwhile the city is considering a mandate that would require every traditional public school have roughly the same racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic makeup within 10 years. Good luck with that. 

Parents of means can always take the expensive options of private school or physically moving to a new district. But the main off-ramp for the non-rich has been New York's extensive charter school system. Now just guess what kind of schools New York politicians are placing an artificial cap on?

So how has "controlled choice" worked out in the world? The Cato Institute's David J. Armor looked at a half-dozen controlled choice districts and found that enrollment went down, richer families fled, and schools didn't even end up more integrated!

So a friendly reminder here from the People's Republic of Brooklyn: "Controlled choice" is an oxymoron. Top-down systems look bad from the bottom up. Choking off supply, then browbeating demand, is no way to run a service. New York and other cities would be better off allowing more competitors to provide public education, and more choice to meet the idiosyncratic needs of a challenging, diverse, and high-achieving city.

Written by Matt Welch. Edited by Paul Detrick. Shot by Jim Epstein.

"Beatles Unite" by Rachel K Collier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (



Photo of council member Brad Lander; Credit: Erik McGregor/Sipa USA/Newscom; Photos of school funding protest; Credit: JIM RUYMEN/UPI/Newscom; Photos of protesters; Credit: JIM RUYMEN/UPI/Newscom; Chalkboard background; ID 83840626 © Oleksandr Shpak |; Photo of Alvin E. Roth; Credit: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom; Photo of Brooklyn Bridge; Credit: David Agüero Muñoz/Westend61 GmbH/Newscom; Photo of Richard Carranza; Credit: Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Brooklyn Bridge; Credit: ID 17307689 © Sinan Durdu |; Photo of charter school rally; Credit: Johnny Milano/Polaris/Newscom

Reason is celebrating National School Choice Week. This story is part of a series that will be published over the course of the week highlighting different K-12 education options available to children and families.


NEXT: Watch Elizabeth Warren Lie About Her Son's Private School Education

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  1. “But turns out parents don’t much enjoy being controlled.”

    There’s a downside to voting woke? Perhaps those parents need to rethink their politics.

    1. Starting with himself.

      1. When it comes to people he doesn’t see color. and he means to keep it that way.

  2. We get it. You’re a parent now, and expect us to care about your ineffectual attempts to derail a bureaucracy you had a hand in creating.

    Sorry bitch. Fight your own fucking battles. Maybe move out and have some god damned integrity.

  3. They don’t want to control school choice; they want to control EVERYTHING!
    So move already; it will create more housing in New York.

  4. Reason seems to alternate between cheerleading the Democratic effort to impeach Trump, and chronicling how the policies which Trump happens to support are better than the Democratic alternatives.

    1. Sorry, Democratic effort to kick Trump out of office and prevent him from having any federal office, from President to park ranger, in the future.

  5. Is that that place to have that discussion I’ve wanted about whether the movement of the goalposts in the libertarian education reform establishment (from thinking of charter schools as a distraction to embacing them as worthwhile efforts at reform) has been a bad one, a good one, or what?

  6. The parents should have two choices, either their children go to the closest public school, or they go to a private school. It is the job of the public school district to keep all of their schools functioning well, and if an inner city public school is not functioning as well as a public school in a nice suburban neighborhood, then the school board has to decide how to fix it, not just say parents can send their children to another public school across town. This is the way it worked back in the 1950s and 1960s.

    1. Hell no, America is about choice, not ramming a one size fits all traditional public school down our throat. Where I live we have the choice of four public charters plus the traditional public school. All the schools excel in one area or another so parents can decide which fits their child best. No way we’re going back to the bad old days.

    2. Parents and their kids can’t afford to wait until bureaucrats figure out how to fix their worst schools. Choice is the only way to provide a good public education, and incentivize low performing schools to reform.

  7. So, here’s the simple way to explain this, and it involves math, simple math, the kind you might have learned in elementary school if long division were taught in fifth grade, like it was back in 1987. I will also use the language of a simple mathematical setup.
    Let there be two schools, Jones and Williams. Jones has 100 students, and 75 of them pass an exam. Williams has 100 students and 25 of them pass an exam. If the state says that 45% of students need to pass an exam in order for the school to pass accreditation, how many students need to go from Jones to Williams, and from Williams to Jones, to make the results seems like there is no difference between the two?
    If you’re still thinking about the answer, then you’re thinking like a Nobel Prize winning economist who has already withdrawn his student from the equation to learn at a real school where education is a priority, because now there are 99 students at one school, and it’s already lost a test-passer, and the numbers are needlessly complicated, because once it was something like 25% of the students, but who gets transferred, only passers or failers, and how will we determine that fairly, and gosh, isn’t this sentence getting long, shouldn’t there be a qualified English teacher to let the author know how much punctuation should be used in the composition of a sentence and how many conjunctions are allowed in the development of a compound sentence joining two independent clauses if he decides to forego a semicolon, (but shouldn’t we be sensitive to the fact that he used the third-person singular masculine to represent an unknown entity? Isn’t this getting needlessly complicated?)
    If you’re angry that I purposely misspelled “forgo” in the last terrible run-on sentence, then I extend congratulations and thanks for making to the end of this comment. “Balancing” schools in the end is about leveling outcomes, not optimizing performance. It’s moving deck chairs on the Titanic, so none go into the water disproportionately. Everyone who can escape is already on a lifeboat.

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  12. ‘”Controlled choice” is an oxymoron.’

    Well yes. But it is also a manipulative use of language intended to deceive. “Controlled choice” is a lie.

    It’s on a par with NAFTA, which was never a free trade agreement. As Milton Friedman observed, a free trade agreement can be written in a sentence. NAFTA was more than a thousand pages long. The proper understanding of NAFTA should have been Not A Free Trade Agreement.

    Another lie we have all repeated is the “Soviet Union.” The words hint at a parallel to the United States. Prior to Civil War, individual states applied for membership. In the grand scheme, our states are united by choice, like a marriage, as we know the term.

    The Soviet Union by contrast was a shotgun marriage implemented by Russian tanks and infantry. It was never the Soviet Union. It was always the Russian Communist Empire. But, but, but … didn’t Marx inveigh against “capitalist imperialism?” Yes, but the last great empire was in fact communist. We couldn’t acknowledge this self-evident fact because it conflicted with our college education.

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