Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Alex Nowrasteh.
The country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, just released a series of interviews with some of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates. In her interview, Sen. Elizabeth Warren echoed her radical anti-choice education plan by bragging about blocking an effort to expand access to public charter schools in her home state of Massachusetts. She claimed “no one should be doing for-profit charters anywhere in America.”
But then she took her argument against school choice a step further. Warren told Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the NEA, that her message to parents is: “If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school.” She urged parents to “help get more resources” for schools, to get “support” for school staff, and “push” for new school buildings when old ones are decaying.
Many parents send their children to public schools because they don’t have the time or skills to teach them by themselves and cannot afford private schools. In addition to working, paying taxes to support the schools, raising children, and running their households, Sen. Warren apparently wants parents to fix public schools in their spare time too.
The Massachusetts senator implies that failing public schools are the fault of the families assigned to the schools, and therefore parents and their children are stuck with them. But if a grocery store gave you rotten produce every week, would Warren tell you that you could not go to a different store because it was your responsibility to make the grocery store and its produce better? The obvious solution would be for you to choose another grocery store. The store with the rotten produce would have a real incentive to improve or perhaps be forced out of business.
How about we give schools, and all of the school administrators paid by taxpayers, the incentive to fix themselves by giving parents the choice to move their kids to the schools of their choice?
After all, Sen. Warren took her son Alex out of public schools and enrolled him in private schools. As a working mom, she didn’t sacrifice the quality of her son’s education in a fruitless attempt to increase the quality of government schools. As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait correctly noted, “Warren is placing the entire responsibility for improving a public service on the shoulders of low-income parents, while supporting laws to deny them better options.”
Warren’s education plan significantly contradicts her immigration plan. Warren correctly argues the United States should have “more legal immigration” and “welcome those fleeing violence, not imprison them in cages.” So it’s bizarre to see Warren’s logic that families must stay put and fix their own government-run schools mirror a common nativist talking point: immigrants should stay put and fix their own countries instead of coming here. Just last year, President Trump demonstrated that way of thinking, saying that immigrants should “build more hopeful futures in their home countries” and “make their countries great again.”
Warren is right that peaceful people should have a lot more freedom to choose where to live and work. They should also have more freedom to select the education that works best for them.
It would be great if failing public schools and poor or dangerous countries improved on their own. Interestingly, emigrating away from failing schools and failing countries can help improve the quality of both for those who remain. A 2019 review finds that 24 of the 26 existing studies done on the subject show that public schools improve when they have to compete with nearby private schools. For example, a peer-reviewed study in American Economic Journal finds that a private school choice program in Florida produced “modest benefits for public school students.”
Similarly, on the national level, politicians in the developing world are often forced to undertake important reforms when their constituents start emigrating in large numbers. Without the discipline imposed by emigration, many of those countries like Mexico and Cape Verde would not have democratized or liberalized their economies as much. In public schools and politics, incentives matter.
As with just about any other good or service, the best solution is to give individuals the freedom to choose among various providers. Competition leads to better outcomes – monopolies do not. This works just as well in choosing education as it does for choosing where to live.
Corey DeAngelis is the Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute. Alex Nowrasteh is the Director of Immigration Studies at the Cato Institute.