How Much Difference Will School Choice Really Make?

There is a battle still raging over K–12 school reform, with little resolved.  This may change with a new case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which will decide whether using public vouchers for private schools is constitutional.

Those on the progressive side, which include the current Democrat presidential candidates, strongly support teacher unions (which are now losing hundreds of members due to Janus v. AFSCME — an outcome that Joy Pullman predicted in these pages a little over a year ago), reject school choice, oppose charter schools, and want to do away with Gifted and Talented magnets.  Their remedies for every problem currently plaguing schools remain the same: more funding and less accountability.

On the conservative side, education reformers advocate the opposite approach, which can be summed up in two words: school choice.  So far, this solution has yet to be truly tested on a large scale, so supporters have the advantage of mostly assuming rosy outcomes.  Based on what is currently known, though, the results will likely be mixed and not so radical a difference as people imagine.

Ideally, school choice means that parents with school-age children receive a yearly voucher that they can use to send their children to any school of their choice (public, private, or charter).  As it stands, school choice advocates argue, most parents do not have a choice about what school their children attend (for financial reasons or due to zoning laws) and must send them to the neighborhood public school even if it's terrible.

People who oppose school choice will usually argue that most public schools are fine (and in some places, they are) and that weaker schools would do better with additional funding.  They're also concerned about what would happen to academic and professional standards if the government did not have any oversight.  Theoretically, a person could start up a school, offer low wages to any person interested in teaching, give all the kids test prep materials, bamboozle desperate parents into sending their children to the school, and do the bare minimum in meeting the students' needs while making a tidy profit.  In other words, school choice could lead to educational sweat shops.  Many charter schools already work this way.

In truth, the educational monopoly of public schools does discourage serious reform, but bringing in the principles of the free market does not automatically guarantee better quality schools.  It would likely make more efficient and productive schools (i.e., ones that produce comparable test results for less time and money), but this does not equate to better schools (i.e., ones that make smarter, well rounded, happier kids).

Moreover, it isn't clear that schools, public or private, would really change.  Sure, in districts dealing with rampant poverty (like Detroit) or coming out of a citywide disaster (like New Orleans after hurricane Katrina), parents will jump at the chance to pull their kids out of a failing public school and opt for a private or charter school, or a public school farther away.  However, in districts that can adequately manage these challenges, such as those in more affluent suburbs, there's really no good reason to pull students out.

Is this because these districts have figured everything out?  Not necessarily.  It's because they already offer parents and students a choice of what kind of education they might want.

In most public schools, students pick from a host of electives, many of which allow certification for a certain trade, and two to three different tracks in core subjects: on-level, Advanced Placement (AP), and (depending on the district) dual-credit.

Using the logic of the free market, one would think most parents and students would choose to take career-oriented electives and every AP or pre-AP class offered.  This would result in the best quality education that surpasses even what a typical private or charter school could offer.  If the material is too demanding or they have obligations outside school, they can at least take dual-credit classes and maybe some electives that pique their interest.  Only a small number of students would settle for on-level classes and extracurricular electives (like athletics or music), since these things seem to offer the least value education-wise.  After all, this is how it works in college.

And yet, in most schools, it is precisely the opposite.  Most kids are in on-level classes and spend the bulk of their time in extra-curricular activities.  Dual-credit has scooped up some of the other students interested in college credit or an easier two-days-a-week schedule while only a small group of students will take AP classes.

This reality suggests that, if given a choice, most parents won't make one — their kids will end up where they are mainly by default.  Even if affordable classical schools or prep schools arise, parents will continue sending their kids to the nearby public school, which has the resources to meet most students' needs.

All this is said not to denigrate school choice, but to present a way forward in this debate.  School choice advocates are right to say well funded but poorly managed public school monopolies lack the incentive to improve — which hurts the students forced to attend them.  But they are wrong to assume that mere competition will bring about superior educational options or that parents will behave differently than they do already.

School reform will require a combination of government support (not only in funding, but quality control and informing parents) and a public willing to take more educational responsibility for its youth.  Policy and awareness campaigns alone will not suffice.  Positive reform will require input from all parties involved, particularly teachers, who are frequently left out of this debate.  Without this, one can expect the same default outcome in public school as with the default classes of the students who attend them. 

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area.  He is the editor of The Everyman and has also written essays for The Federalist, Crisis Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative.  Follow him on Twitter.

There is a battle still raging over K–12 school reform, with little resolved.  This may change with a new case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which will decide whether using public vouchers for private schools is constitutional.

Those on the progressive side, which include the current Democrat presidential candidates, strongly support teacher unions (which are now losing hundreds of members due to Janus v. AFSCME — an outcome that Joy Pullman predicted in these pages a little over a year ago), reject school choice, oppose charter schools, and want to do away with Gifted and Talented magnets.  Their remedies for every problem currently plaguing schools remain the same: more funding and less accountability.

On the conservative side, education reformers advocate the opposite approach, which can be summed up in two words: school choice.  So far, this solution has yet to be truly tested on a large scale, so supporters have the advantage of mostly assuming rosy outcomes.  Based on what is currently known, though, the results will likely be mixed and not so radical a difference as people imagine.

Ideally, school choice means that parents with school-age children receive a yearly voucher that they can use to send their children to any school of their choice (public, private, or charter).  As it stands, school choice advocates argue, most parents do not have a choice about what school their children attend (for financial reasons or due to zoning laws) and must send them to the neighborhood public school even if it's terrible.

People who oppose school choice will usually argue that most public schools are fine (and in some places, they are) and that weaker schools would do better with additional funding.  They're also concerned about what would happen to academic and professional standards if the government did not have any oversight.  Theoretically, a person could start up a school, offer low wages to any person interested in teaching, give all the kids test prep materials, bamboozle desperate parents into sending their children to the school, and do the bare minimum in meeting the students' needs while making a tidy profit.  In other words, school choice could lead to educational sweat shops.  Many charter schools already work this way.

In truth, the educational monopoly of public schools does discourage serious reform, but bringing in the principles of the free market does not automatically guarantee better quality schools.  It would likely make more efficient and productive schools (i.e., ones that produce comparable test results for less time and money), but this does not equate to better schools (i.e., ones that make smarter, well rounded, happier kids).

Moreover, it isn't clear that schools, public or private, would really change.  Sure, in districts dealing with rampant poverty (like Detroit) or coming out of a citywide disaster (like New Orleans after hurricane Katrina), parents will jump at the chance to pull their kids out of a failing public school and opt for a private or charter school, or a public school farther away.  However, in districts that can adequately manage these challenges, such as those in more affluent suburbs, there's really no good reason to pull students out.

Is this because these districts have figured everything out?  Not necessarily.  It's because they already offer parents and students a choice of what kind of education they might want.

In most public schools, students pick from a host of electives, many of which allow certification for a certain trade, and two to three different tracks in core subjects: on-level, Advanced Placement (AP), and (depending on the district) dual-credit.

Using the logic of the free market, one would think most parents and students would choose to take career-oriented electives and every AP or pre-AP class offered.  This would result in the best quality education that surpasses even what a typical private or charter school could offer.  If the material is too demanding or they have obligations outside school, they can at least take dual-credit classes and maybe some electives that pique their interest.  Only a small number of students would settle for on-level classes and extracurricular electives (like athletics or music), since these things seem to offer the least value education-wise.  After all, this is how it works in college.

And yet, in most schools, it is precisely the opposite.  Most kids are in on-level classes and spend the bulk of their time in extra-curricular activities.  Dual-credit has scooped up some of the other students interested in college credit or an easier two-days-a-week schedule while only a small group of students will take AP classes.

This reality suggests that, if given a choice, most parents won't make one — their kids will end up where they are mainly by default.  Even if affordable classical schools or prep schools arise, parents will continue sending their kids to the nearby public school, which has the resources to meet most students' needs.

All this is said not to denigrate school choice, but to present a way forward in this debate.  School choice advocates are right to say well funded but poorly managed public school monopolies lack the incentive to improve — which hurts the students forced to attend them.  But they are wrong to assume that mere competition will bring about superior educational options or that parents will behave differently than they do already.

School reform will require a combination of government support (not only in funding, but quality control and informing parents) and a public willing to take more educational responsibility for its youth.  Policy and awareness campaigns alone will not suffice.  Positive reform will require input from all parties involved, particularly teachers, who are frequently left out of this debate.  Without this, one can expect the same default outcome in public school as with the default classes of the students who attend them. 

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area.  He is the editor of The Everyman and has also written essays for The Federalist, Crisis Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative.  Follow him on Twitter.