With around half of America’s public-school students scoring below their grade level proficiency on national exams, the school choice movement argues that parents should be allowed to use public funds toward any education they deem fit, from private schools, to public schools outside their neighborhoods to homeschooling.
The appointment of choice advocate Betsy DeVos to Secretary of the Department of Education and President Trump’s pledge to earmark $20 billion for school choice has brought the question of whether school choice policies will ensure better quality education for America’s 50 million school-aged children to the fore.
Does competition really produce better schools, or is sending children to unregulated schools a needless gamble with public monies? Below, we’ll look at three reasons in support of school choice, and three reasons against it.
We should fund choice.
Choice encourages better educational experiences.
Parents who opt-out of their assigned public school effectively opt-into the alternative of their choosing. Choosing a school requires parents to make a significant time investment in marketplace research, and this initial investment increases the likelihood of greater involvement in their child’s education and the school’s well-being as a whole. A California public school teacher who opted to send his own child to private school noted the difference between the students who were actively engaged in learning at his daughter’s private school, and those he taught in public school who were trapped in “the norm of disengagement” that accompanies being assigned a school rather than choosing one.
School choice provides opportunities for kids in low-performing public schools.
Students in low-income areas are often trapped not only in failing schools, but failing public school systems. School choice allows poor students to use tax-dollars toward private education they would never be able to afford otherwise, offering a chance for educational success in districts which offer none. Charter schools, publicly funded schools which operate autonomously from public school districts, have also proven a viable option for poor kids attending struggling traditional schools. Academics analyzed performance in Boston charter schools and found that not only were charter school students learning faster than their public-school counterparts, but they had effectively closed the achievement gap between black and white students. Poor students deserve the same opportunities as their more fortunate counterparts, and school choice affords them this opportunity.
School choice makes public schools stronger.
Public school systems have become more competitive in response to the threat of losing students (and therefore, funding) to charter schools and private schools. For example, following the inauguration of charter schools, the Escondido Union School District expanded offerings for its own students, implementing language immersion programs and accelerated arts and sciences curricula in community schools. Veteran education researcher, Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, points to overall improvement of test scores in several public school districts after the implementation of school choice policies, lending weight to the argument that schools renew their commitment to education when enrollment is not a foregone conclusion.
We should fund public schools.
Public school systems already offer plenty of choices.
Forty-eight states have open enrollment laws which allow students to transfer to a school of their choice within their district. Some even provide the opportunity to transfer to other districts. Additionally, many districts offer magnet schools, public schools with specialized curricula and often offer accelerated academics as well. Community colleges across the country have teamed up with public high schools to offer students the opportunity to complete high school while earning college credits. With the exception of parochial education, the public school system already offers tremendous variety in its curriculum objectives and approaches; the “need” for additional options has been overstated.
Public schools perform better than most private or charter schools.
A 2013 University of Illinois study of student achievement at more than 300,000 public, private, and charter schools, showed that public school students outperform private and charter school students. The study’s authors point to regulation, particularly the fact that public schools can only hire certified educators, as a factor that influences positive outcomes public schools. Furthermore, the prestige or presumed academic rigor on offer at private schools does not guarantee their students will be accepted to a prestigious university. Ivy League acceptance rates between Manhattan’s top private and public schools are virtually the same. The data show that public school students are getting ahead in life just as well as their private school counterparts.
Applying market ideals to schools doesn’t necessarily make for great education.
Proponents of school choice argue that creating a competitive market in schooling will cause schools to become performance-focused in order to attract students. But studies have revealed that many privately-operated schools not only failed to inspire academic excellence, but even caused their students’ skills to regress. One former Detroit charter school teacher lamented the appointment of non-educators to supervisory positions, the lack of school-wide curriculum, and “misguided academic choices” made in the name of giving the school a competitive edge, among them, the implementation of a $180,000 Mandarin program in a school whose students could barely read English. Such incidences show the limitations of applying business logic to education, and cast serious doubt on the wisdom of school choice altogether.
Bottom Lines: School choice has produced an array of schooling options, the results of which have been mixed. Parents and policy-makers alike owe the nation’s children an un-politicized, thorough investigation of school choice to determine its potential to effectively educate the next generation of Americans.