Care About Equal Opportunity? Support School Choice!
It’s time for opponents of school choice to be taken to task.
The American Federation for Children defines school choice as “Any policy that allows families to take their children’s education dollars to the approved education provider of their choosing — be it traditional public schools, public charter schools, private school, virtual learning, or home schooling.”
How can anyone be opposed to that? And yet, teachers’ unions are, and viciously so.
The National Education Association and its state counterparts argue that school choice policies “take scarce funding from public schools — which serve 90% of students — and give it to private schools — institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers.”
It’s quite the circular argument. The whole point of school choice is to let tax dollars for education follow the student. So if 90% of families choose to keep their kids at the public schools, nothing changes. That’s just logic.
The bit about accountability is laughable. By letting the money follow the student, you ensure that schools that don’t serve students well don’t get the money. Parents who have a choice will not choose a school that fails their kids. There’s no better accountability than that.
Finally, the NEA claims that school choice “fail[s] to protect the human and civil rights of students” and “exacerbate[s] segregation.” But the fact is, the opposite is true.
By pouring all the tax dollars into one school and forcing families to either send their kids there, teach them at home, or pay for school out of their own pockets, states without school choice programs perpetuate segregation. Wealthy families can pull their kids out of failing schools; poorer families can’t. So in this framework, the poorest students get stuck in the worst schools; the wealthier students move out of them.
The COVID-19 Pandemic — A Case Study
In the Spring of 2020, schools across the nation closed their doors amidst the pandemic. Because I have kids in both systems, I saw the disparity between the extent of disruption to education in public school versus private school. It was stunning.
For my privately-schooled kids, there was a period of downtime when the pandemic first hit. Administrators and teachers innovated to find ways to continue teaching kids. Classes went online. Google Classroom was deployed. There was little to no change in the standards for student performance.
As soon as executive orders allowed, the private school had kids back in the classroom. Parents did health-checks each morning. Desks were distanced. Everyone wore masks. Windows stayed open. Whenever possible, teachers taught outside. And it worked. Education went on, with very little disruption, and the school community stayed healthy — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The public school situation was a different story entirely. My local public schools are very good. But they are — like all public schools — mired in bureaucracy and beholden to teachers’ unions. They simply shut down — for a long, long time. Students became isolated. Working parents with younger students had to turn their worlds upside down to make it all work.
Eventually, an attempt was made to conduct class online. But standards changed dramatically. It was no longer even possible to fail a class. And students sitting at home watching a screen for hours on end surely were not receiving the same quality of education as those sitting among peers in the presence of their teachers.
The point is this: as we saw different schools taking different approaches to the public health crisis, wealthy families had options. Less wealthy families did not.
School Choice — The Great Equalizer
If we really want equal opportunities for kids from all races, ethnicities, and family income levels, we must let each child’s parents choose the school that’s best for their kids, and send education tax dollars there — the same amount for every child.
If you’re worried that private schools are too expensive for this to work, take a look at the numbers. The average spending per student, per year, is over $14,000 in the public system. Tuition prices at the excellent private school my kids attend are lower than that — and significantly lower for younger students.
State-sponsored school choice programs really can be the great equalizer when it comes to educational opportunity. Families of means already have school choice — they just pay for it out of pocket. State-sponsored school choice programs level the education playing field for all families.
Teachers’ unions, hear this: Go on and oppose school choice if your goal is something other than opening doors for more students to succeed. But if you must oppose it, don’t dare call yourself a “progressive.” Because school choice is the obvious path to progress in education.
Rita Peters is a constitutional attorney, the author of Restoring America’s Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture and co-host of the weekly radio program, “Crossroads: Where Faith and Culture Meet.”