Originally published at Every Joe
It’s National School Choice Week, an annual affair built on advocacy in pursuit of “effective education options for every child.” According to the group’s website, “The goal of National School Choice Week (NSCW) is to raise public awareness of all types of education options for children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.”
To an individual who isn’t embroiled in the politics of education, this sounds like a commonsense statement. Why subvert the needs of children to empower government and its special interests? Unfortunately, this question answers itself: The culprits are typically money and power. As a result, the issue of school choice is more complicated than it seems on its face, primarily due to the government’s long-held monopoly on education.
Eighty-three percent of children in the United States attend a traditional public school. This means that generally speaking, their education options are limited to the government-run school district that their families happen to live in. This can work out if a child is from a decently affluent area, the schools are good, and his or her parents are engaged with their education. But for disproportionately low-income children trapped in failings schools, lack of choice in education can be a nightmare that sets them up for a lifetime of underperformance.
School choice comes in many forms and, despite its increasing popularity, there are myriad roadblocks to its success. One of the most well-known and popular alternatives to traditionally zoned public schools are charter schools. These are semi or fully publicly funded entities that function as non-profits, led by a private board. Other models include vouchers or education savings accounts; both of which essentially function as a tax credit given to families with which they are allowed to make their own educational and school placement decisions.
Critics of the charter model, including socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, say these schools are focused more on profits than education. “I’m not in favor of privately-run charter schools,” said Sanders to a New Hampshire audience earlier this month. “If we are going to have a strong democracy and be competitive globally, we need the best educated people in the world. And I believe in public education,” he added. (It’s unclear whether Sanders realizes charter schools are public and that on balance they outperform traditional models.)
Critics also claim that voucherizing education – insofar as taxpayer money could be spent at a private school – has the same allegedly negative impact. But there are some major problems with these notions. First is the basic idea, as Sanders claims, that charters are profiting. They’re typically set up as non-profits for a reason; their board members aren’t investors. And secondly, even if they were making a profit, from the perspective of a free market advocate, so what? Profits are the engine of innovation; the more the better. Yet people who are ideologically committed to government centralization malign the efficacy of profits, and naturally tend to oppose choice in education because it undermines the top-down system they so admire.
But not all opposition to school choice is driven by ideology alone. Teachers’ unions are unfortunately one of the biggest opponents of a competitive market in education – and they’ve done a disservice by pitting the demands of public school teachers against what years of data proves is best for children. As Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Jared Meyer wrote at The Manhattan Institute, “The tripling of funding to schools has not benefited students. Powerful teachers’ unions have directed this funding to pay raises for themselves and increased hiring, as student achievement has stagnated.” As they noted, the U.S. went from having the world’s highest graduation high school graduation rate post World War II, to spending the most money per student in the world while falling drastically performance-wise.
This is no doubt an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with the model, not the amount of money being poured into it. And where charter schools are tried, the results speak for themselves. A popular case study proving this point is New Orleans. Post Hurricane Katrina, the city’s public schools were virtually wiped out. In a moment of crisis, the city allowed charter schools to come in and take over. What resulted was so impressive, the model has stayed intact for ten years – and is going strong.
As Jonathan Alter wrote at The Daily Beast last year, pleading with liberals to support school choice, “The results in New Orleans are impressive. Over the last decade, graduation rates have surged from 54 percent to 73 percent, and college enrollment after graduation from 37 percent to 59 percent. (There’s also a new emphasis on helping those who attend college to complete it.) Before Katrina, 62 percent of schools were failing. Today, it’s 6 percent.”
This is an incredibly impressive feat. And it’s worth noting that 85 percent of students attending New Orleans public schools are African-American, many of whom come from low-income families. These are ostensibly the people presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who has also spoken out against charters) seek to help with their top-down approach to education. Yet the model they’re pushing is an outdated, monopolistic failure. In fact, data shows that competition from charter schools actually improves the traditionally zoned ones. But yet again, we have politicians putting the interests of a union over the needs of low-income children.
Innovation should always be a key component in education. Yet all too often it’s stifled in favor of stale, rigid models that assume one-size-fits-all. The truth is this is almost never the case, especially when it comes to the art of teaching individual students. And on the measure of retaining and educating challenging students, charters manage to outperform traditional public schools as well. There’s simply no doubt that more choice in education leads to better outcomes for students, particularly those who come from families that cannot afford alternatives. To the extent that we can free the market in education and make it as vibrant as possible, the better. Here’s to National School Choice Week and their lobbying efforts. May it pay off, for the sake of the nation’s future.