Fox News Misses The Mark On Public Education And School Choice

Fox News' Eric Bolling hosted's editor-at-large Mary Katharine Ham to push school choice and attack public schools, but failed to mention that school choice does little to address educational disparities and may actually disadvantage low income students.

On the August 8 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, guest host Eric Bolling criticized Matt Damon's decision to send his children to private schools despite advocating for the public school system. Ham used the story - which has received much right wing media hype - to push school choice as an alternative to investing in public schools:

HAM: I would love everybody to have that choice instead of spending all this money on schools that don't work.

BOLLING: Sure, and it really isn't that complicated. There's the charter school program, there's the voucher programs that are available, but they don't seem to want to do that. Why don't--what's the push back on those?

HAM: Well, the argument from the left, and from union leaders and frankly folks like Matt Damon is we need to invest more in public schools, it's always about more money and less accountability, is frankly what it feels like, and they're often very explicit about that. The fact is, holding schools accountable is part of making them work, and sometimes in order to do that you have to give kids a ticket elsewhere so that schools realize, hmm, maybe I should be serving this kid. And if that happens through charter schools, fine, that's a form of public schools that can be held accountable. But I do find it very interesting when the left tells the rest of us we have to invest in public schools and then they take their, perhaps their most rich investment, their own children, and they put them in private schools.

However, Ham's claim that school choice - a term that includes policies such as vouchers, parent triggers, charters, tax credits and scholarships - will produce better educational outcomes than investment in public schools has been called into question by numerous studies.

The Public Policy Institute of California conducted a study of the effects of school choice in the San Diego Unified School District, where 28 percent of students chose alternative schools in the early 2000s. The study's findings were “striking,” as the authors found that “on the whole there was no systemic improvement or deterioration in test scores from participating in a choice program.”

Further case studies show that school choice initiatives may disadvantage the low income students they are intended to help. A March 2013 essay on school choice reproduced in The Washington Post examined the outcome of charter schools in New Orleans and the initiative's effect on local public schools:

In New Orleans - perhaps America's choiciest school district, where 70 percent of students attend charter schools - most of the schools remain the lowest performing in one of the lowest performing states, and parent activists have come to the conclusion that choice means “a choice to apply” while still remaining “trapped” in the same lousy schools.


Further, more taxpayer dollars diverted to charter and private schools means less money for traditional local schools, which affects the options of the parents “left behind” in their community schools. And regardless of the choice scheme, more well-off parents will always have the means to game the system while less well-off parents are left scrambling in the wake of a more competitive landscape.

Furthermore, even with school choice programs low-income families remain trapped in underperforming schools because they lack the information they need to come out ahead in the admissions process. The authors of a study on school choice in New York City schools found that upper-middle-class families have more information and resources at hand to “game the system,” effectively boxing lower-class and minority families out of the best schools:

Information drives any choice system in the marketplace, said Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In the high school admissions process, information really is power.

“The upper-middle-class families have more of it; they can look at mavens who have gone through the process and can tell others how to game the system,” Dr. Levin said.

Sean P. Corcoran of New York University and Dr. Levin conducted a study, “School Choice and Competition in the New York City Schools,” that showed black and Hispanic students in the city in 2008 tended to rank better-performing schools outside their neighborhood as their first choice, but more often ended up being accepted at local schools more like their middle schools.

Bolling's claim that “it isn't really that complicated,” and that school choice programs can fix educational achievement gaps also ignores the fact that there aren't enough competitive schools for all aspiring students. According to The New York Times, the authors of the New York City school choice study concluded that it was impossible “for every student to go to a school better than his or her middle school, since there were only a small number of competitive high schools.”