Panel explores the school choice movement and its implications for American education


Three individuals well-versed in the school choice movement, John Schoenig, Maria McKenna, and Steven L’Heureux, participated in a panel before a packed auditorium of students and faculty members last Tuesday. Co-sponsored by Students for Child-Oriented Policy and the Education Club, the event featured presentations from each of the speakers, followed by a robust question-and-answer session.

Schoenig, Director of Teacher Formation and Education Policy at the Alliance for Catholic Education, noted the importance of continuing the conversation about school choice. Drastic alterations to K-12 education have occurred during our lifetimes, he said, resulting in an ever-expanding availability of choices and a shift in the way we conceptualize the state’s role in education.

Describing two occurrences that forever altered the landscape of education, Schoenig illustrated how we have reached the present moment in the school choice movement. In 1990, Milwaukee pioneered the first publicly funded private choice program, providing funds known as vouchers that low-income families could use to send children to a private school. Shortly after, Minnesota passed its first charter school bill with the intention of creating competition within the public school market that would allow for alternate governance, as charter schools are privately run while remaining publicly funded.

These two instances fundamentally changed the conversation about education, according to Schoenig, as they led to the realization that “the state doesn’t have to operate every school that it regulates and funds.” With the advent of charter schools, and the Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) that run them, private individuals are responsible for the direct governance of schools, while the state merely provides funds and regulates in a broad sense.

Highlighting the importance of divesting our purpose from our means when trying to effect social change in education, Schoenig stated, “I think one of the main issues that plagues our society is that we tie our methods to our purpose. People think: I am a voucher person, I am a charter person, I am a union person, and we become tied to these means. But these means are not the end; our true purpose is that we all want children to have higher educational outcomes.”

Maria McKenna, Director of the Education, Schooling, and Society minor and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Educational Initiatives, seconded Schoenig’s comment about separating means from purpose. Yet she suggested that the focus on school choice could be complemented by other changes in education policy. McKenna noted that the solution to equity in past years has been to send public money to schools not run by the state, which may take the form of charter schools or voucher programs. Mentioning changes to funding mechanisms, district boundaries, and a national conversation about the purpose of education, McKenna argued that school choice is one of many components to consider when examining American education as it exists today, in order to recognize how it can be better in the future.

Schoenig defended the school choice movement, as he believes it has bettered the lives of poor children. Discussing the typical American practice of “educating by zip code,” or automatically sending students to their local public school even if it is failing, Schoenig highlighted the demerits of this method.

“When you think about marginalized families and the choices that are stripped out of their lives on a daily basis, one of these choices is now made available to them in the form of educational options,” he commented.

Steven L’Heureux, a current MBA student at Notre Dame, has seen the effects that the charter movement has had on the Recovery School District of New Orleans while he was employed in a variety of jobs in the area. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, he said that the public school system was in a state of dysfunction and ranked almost last in the country in its efficacy. Following the hurricane, the state gave the failing public schools to different CMOs, which concurrently centralized the enrollment process and created a wide variety of charter school options, including all-year schools, STEM schools, and language immersion schools. Parents could then complete one application to indicate which schools they would prefer to have their children attend, regardless of zip code.

Since this reorganization, New Orleans’ Recovery School District has witnessed unprecedented learning gains, according to L’Heureux and Schoenig. Zero public schools remain in the Recovery School District; 94 percent of its children now attend charter schools, none of which existed 15 years ago.

Schoenig concluded by mentioning the importance of separating public education from public schools. “Public education is a concept that the state has a sacred obligation to provide an education to its children, and the public school system is not necessarily the only way in which this can be done. We don’t necessarily have to keep doing what we have done in the past,” he said.

Kate Hardiman is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She is looking forward to writing her thesis on the school choice movement. Contact her at