School Choice: An American Value

Rob Schwarzwalder
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Posted: Jan 30, 2015 12:01 AM
School Choice: An American Value

What could be more American than letting moms and dads decide where their kids go to school?

Parents are responsible for their children’s health care, diet, clothes, even what kind of toothpaste they use. But some politicians and others in the education bureaucracy insist that letting them determine where they send their children to school is either beyond their ken or else too damaging to the broad interests of public education.

This makes no sense, especially given that the broad, even if well-intended, errors of the education bureaucracy can have such profoundly negative effects. As education writer Joy Pullman notes, “We have school choice in this country – we have centralized school choice. Bureaucratized school choice. Central planning. The few, the proud, the paper-pushers making whatever decisions please them … if a bureaucrat or lawmaker makes a mistake, he harms thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people … if I make a mistake in my own life, I am strongly motivated to fix it quickly, given the personal pain mistakes usually inflict. It is far less likely that I will double down on my mistake than that a bureaucrat, whose interest is to protect his sinecure, not get things right, will.”

Adding to the frustration is that good options are readily available. For example, charter schools have been proven effective in many venues. For example, a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research of charter schools in two very diverse environments, the state of Florida and the city of Chicago, found that:

  • “Students enrolled in a charter public high school are 7 to 11 percentage points more likely to graduate compared to their peers in district-run schools.”
  • “Students attending a charter public school significantly improved the probability they would enroll in college by 10 and 11 percentage points in Florida and Chicago, respectively.”
  • “Those students who graduated from charter public schools were more likely than district-school graduates to complete at least two years of post-secondary education at either a two-year or four-year college.”
  • “While data is currently only available for charter students in Florida, the benefits found are substantial. The study showed that charter school attendance was associated with an increase in maximum annual earnings between ages 23 and 25 of $2,347 – about 12.7 percent higher than for comparable students who attended a traditional high school.”

Then there are magnet schools and alternative schools and school transfers. And, of course, the traditional conservative belief that taxpayers should be able to direct their hard-earned dollars to whatever school – public, private, religious, virtual or whatever – they believe best suits the needs of their children. Vouchers are constitutional. They would provide real choice and better options. They also threaten the education establishment – which is, perhaps, all the more reason conservatives should keep fighting for them. Centers of power that exist, at least in part, simply for their own self-perpetuation deserve continued challenge.

The data are exhaustive and lead to one conclusion: When competition and choice are introduced into public education, students do better academically and thus gain access to a brighter educational and professional future.

There are any number of creative proposals on Capital Hill that would open more doors for parents looking for options for their kids. They include measures that would let parents contribute as much as they wish to Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, allow tax-free “529” college savings accounts to cover K-12 education costs, let low-income families send their children to any public or private school they choose, give greater options to children with disabilities, and create pilot school choice programs at military bases.

These are just a few of the ideas that, if applied to America’s primary and secondary educational system, could transform countless young lives. But parents also argue that there are other, less tangible benefits to sending their children to the schools of their choice.

In the District of Columbia, for example, studies show that “parents do not pursue student test score gains so much as they seek safety and character development for their child. For themselves, parents view school choice as a pathway to dignity, respect, and empowerment.”

Yet even the most diverse and effective systems of education will be deficient if not grounded in strong families. As my colleague Dr. Pat Fagan of FRC’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute has documented, "Only 46 percent of American 15- to 17-year-olds have been raised with both their biological parents married to one another since before or around the time of their birth." And, as might be expected, educational attainment for boys and girls and young men and women will be affected adversely by the lack of a secure family life.

Strong families equipped with the options they need to make good decisions about where their kids learn should be celebrated by the government that they constitute, not deterred by it. American families make choices every day about things large and small without the intrusive hand of government demanding certain outcomes or limiting the variety of their options. Shouldn’t the education of their children be one of them?