One Size Does Not Fit All: The Case for School Choice
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of schools was one of the largest challenges to American families with children. Many parents were forced to assume the role of teacher, and many students were left wondering when they’d return to the classroom. As phased re-openings dragged on, parents grew increasingly anxious. The collective frustration surrounding the delayed re-openings galvanized a new, yet familiar debate on education.
The lack of urgency surrounding a return to the classroom made one thing clear: parents deserve a louder voice in their children’s education. School choice legislation seeks to provide them with the means to do just that. The basic aim of school choice bills is to grant parents more control over their child’s education by giving them more options outside of traditional public schools. According to School Choice Week, a non-profit trying to raise awareness on this issue, “school choice means giving parents access to the best K-12 education options for their children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling” . Possibly more important, the expansion of school choice would be a lifeline to low-income or minority students and those who are trapped in failing school systems.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, public schools sought to keep their doors shut until they deemed it safe to return. In the fall of 2020, 62% of American public schools began their school year online, while only 5% of private schools did the same . This contrast alone could explain why support for school choice is supported by 77% of eligible voters who would vote in favor of school choice legislation . It should be noted that the comparison between public and private schools isn't necessarily a fair one. Private schools are more conducive to in-person learning due to generally smaller student populations, administrations with more leeway, and more resources to accomplish deep cleanings or construct outdoor learning spaces. But giving parents a choice between public and private school is just one component of school choice.
ReopeningBut reopening public schools was a problem for families because of the pandemic. Public school has issues besides a national health emergency. One of those is the way public school quality is tethered to surrounding neighborhoods’ wealth. Studies by the Joint Economic Committee detail the way in which disparities in median home cost affect the quality of public education for a given neighborhood. For example, zip codes that approach half-million dollar median home prices have significantly higher rated schools than neighborhoods with lower median home prices . In addition, prospective homebuyers often cite school quality as an important factor when shopping for homes, according to Niche.com, a website where parents can rate schools. School zoning laws, which are common in major cities, restrict which public school an area's residents can attend. Because the higher income neighborhoods have better quality schools, these policies disproportionately affect low income and minority communities . School choice legislation, however, could help circumvent this inequity by giving marginalized communities access to alternative, higher quality education options.
A case study that provides an example of what can happen when parents are given options beyond the one-size fits all public school model comes from an East Coast-based charter school system called Uncommon Schools. They manage 55 urban charter schools along the East Coast that cater to predominately minorities and underserved communities. Historically, schools that serve less affluent inner-city communities provide lower quality education compared with public schools in more wealthy areas. Standards that define low quality education usually consist of test results, literacy level, and college attainment scores among the student body . Surprisingly, Uncommon Schools boast college attainment scores, AP test scores, and SAT scores that all surpass national benchmarks among high school students . But the case for charter schools is not rooted solely in Uncommon Schools’ success. Data suggests that many charter schools, particularly those in urban communities, outperform public schools in proficiency levels and test results, often times by charters operating within the same district as public schools .
Giving parents options can have a tremendous impact on their child’s learning and charter schools represent one example to prove that. In addition, charter schools may present a solution to achievement inequalities in America. A Stanford University study concluded that charter schools tend to benefit African Americans more than any other race . Their study revealed that charter schools have a positive growth effect on students’ math and reading comprehension compared to those in traditional public schools . The data for charter school success imply that school choice legislation could help to shrink the achievement gap permeating our country, and-- by endowing them with a better education-- grant those in minority communities more opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. America spent a large part of 2020 reeling from racial justice issues. For activists who want a more equitable society, supporting school choice would be a great place to begin.
Ultimately school choice represents a solution to a dysfunctional education system at the federal, state, and local level. Discrepancies between wealthy and un-wealthy communities have been shown to affect the quality of education one receives. The public schools in wealthy communities usually deliver good enough education with standards to prove that . The public schools in poorer urban areas that serve mostly minority students usually breed underprepared students. These schools are identified by poor test results, low levels of literacy, and poorly trained teachers, among other things . The achievement gap in America will only continue to grow unless our elected officials show they are determined to give every student the necessary tools to advance in society.
While school choice has been shown to be popular amongst minority communities with black and Hispanic voters supporting its legislation, it remains an oddly partisan and contentious issue . School choice is currently supported by only 63% of democrats, while 79% of republicans support it . The National Education Association, a collection of teachers unions from across the country, has called for President Biden to, “oppose all charter school expansion that undermines traditional public schools” and “bar federal funding to charter schools, charter school authorizers, and charter school management companies not authorized or operated by local school districts . Such demands would make Uncommon Schools, and many other urban charter schools, unable to operate. Given the unpopularity amongst democrats, advancing legislation through large cities may be difficult given that minority communities often vote overwhelmingly democratic. This rift between democrats and their constituents could either prove detrimental to closing the achievement gap or it could provide an excellent opportunity for republicans to rally behind school choice and make progress in democratic strongholds.
One of the biggest objections toward school choice is that it negatively affects public schools’ finances. Kentucky provides a real example of what opponents fear school choice will do to traditional public schools. In 2020, Democratic governor Andy Beshear vetoed House Bill 563. This bill would have established education savings accounts (ESA) for families that could be used as vouchers for choosing schools. Beshear’s reason for vetoing was his claim that it would “end public schooling as we know it” . He’s certainly not alone in harboring such negative sentiments about school choice. Opponents often claim that school choice bills would result in public school districts losing funding due to students migrating to other schools-- negatively impacting the public education system at large. However, the data contradicts governor Beshar’s claims. Several studies from states that have implemented school choice legislation shows that the effect on public school districts is overwhelmingly positive . The current system for public school funding is based on a per-pupil ratio, local funding, and federal funding- when a student is present for roll call, the school is given funds to educate that student. Most school choice legislation, however, is state sponsored. This means that when students leave a public school, the school would lose state funding, but they do not lose local property taxes or federal funding . Each state has different tax systems but in the end, the student leaving results in the public school coming out ahead .
If school choice is implemented, what happens when a student does leave a public school? Research suggests that when given an option, there is a type of competitive effect that increases the public schools test scores. With school choice, if a parent is unsatisfied with a public school, they could much more easily (and affordably) leave. This competitive effect ultimately compels schools-- public, private, or charter-- to provide better education . In a recent study, twenty-eight school choice programs from across the nation were examined to identify the effects on public schools. The findings show that when school choice was implemented, the test results of neighboring public schools increased-- suggesting that school competition incited by school choice legislation was beneficial for education at large, not just non-public or alternative schools .
For too long parents have been at the receiving end of sub-par public education. Restrictive zoning laws have effectively tied parents’ hands behind their backs. With the pandemic shedding light on the inadequacies that plague a lot of public schools’ systems, families are beginning to take action by demanding more involvement. Adopting and enacting school choice legislation might result in a society of better educated and well prepared citizens. Perhaps education will one day exist to prioritize the student rather than the institution.
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2. Dickler, Jessica. “Families Jump to Private Schools as Coronavirus Drags On.” CNBC, November 8, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/08/coronavirus-why-families-are-jumping-to-private-schools.html.
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4. Uncommon Schools. “Results.” Accessed May 14, 2021. http://uncommonschools.org/results/.
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10. “SAT Scores Drop and Racial Gaps Remain Large.” Accessed May 14, 2021. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/09/03/sat-scores-drop-and-racial-gaps-remain-large.
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13. whas11.com. “Beshear Vetoes School Choice Bill That Narrowly Cleared Kentucky General Assembly.” Accessed May 14, 2021. https://www.whas11.com/article/news/education/beshear-education-bill-school-choice/417-3b1389c4-5ac3-4d09-bab7-dc0469565680.
14. EdChoice. “How Does School Choice Affect Public Schools’ Funding and Resources?” Accessed May 14, 2021. https://www.edchoice.org/engage/faqs/how-does-school-choice-affect-public-schools-funding-and-resources/.