This semester I'm teaching courses on school law and education policy, and the topic of school choice has quickly surfaced, not just because of its relevance to the classes but also its prominence in the news. The nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education and the Kentucky legislature's first meaningful possibility of passing a charter school law and scholarship tax credits has nearly everyone talking about school choice. But what I've found is that many people, especially Kentucky's rank and file teachers, are largely unaware of what school choice is, how such policies would work, and why they might be good for students and families.
In a three-part series of posts, I'd like to offer a primer on this topic and address the most common questions people ask about school choice. Of course my point of view is biased. I'm a long-time advocate for expanding education options. But I'm well aware of the criticisms of the idea, and fairly well-versed in the research, and so hopefully readers can explore the topic further based on what I present here and make an independent judgment about my conclusions. I think it's important to note that I write as someone who is a career-long advocate for strong public schools, having served as a teacher and administrator in several Kentucky districts, and in my current role I train teachers who aspire to be the next generation of great public school leaders. My service on the Kentucky Board of Education since last June speaks to my commitment to high-quality education for all students.
In this first post, I want to address the basic arguments for school choice. In follow-up posts, I'll describe what the most common school choice policies look like, discuss the most frequently-heard concerns about school choice related to their financial impact on public schools, issues related to "separation of church and state," and other aspects of the school choice debate. [Update: Part II is now posted here].
What is school choice?
School choice is the idea that while education is a public good and should be generously funded, education tax dollars should be allocated to follow each student to the school of his or her family's choice. In other words, instead of sending education funding directly to a network of government-run and operated school districts that are charged with providing education services to all families within a geographic area, funds would flow to families themselves, who could then use that funding to obtain education services from a wide variety of providers, which might include the local public school district, but might also include independently run charter schools, private schools, or other nearby public schools that aren't necessarily within the family's attendance zone.
But we've always had this kind of system. Why change it now?
Actually, we haven't always had this system. Ashley Rogers Berner's new book, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, documents the great variety of ways that American communities educated children up until the mid-to-late 1800's. So there is plenty of historical precedence for a different approach. Plus, as I'll document below, many other states have already adopted a wide range of school choice policies.
But in terms of why it's time to make that change, there are three basic and inter-related arguments. The first one is practical: the current system doesn't work as well as it should and might be more effective with the added element of parental choice. The second argument is one of fairness: the current system is unjust toward l0w-income families. And the third argument is one of logical consistency: education should be like other public services that require a high-degree of personalization.
The effectiveness argument. Our current education system functions basically like a government-run monopoly for most families. The local school district provides education for the students in its jurisdiction, and most families have no other choice in who educates their children. But monopolies usually don't work very well, for three main reasons.
First, a monopolistic system has to tend toward one-size-fits-all services because it is charged with meeting the needs of every client, and it cannot possible know or be responsive to their myriad preferences, choices, and needs; no school, no matter how good, can address the needs of every single child and we put an unfair burden on public school teachers by asking them to do so.
Second, because it tends toward one-size-fits-all solutions, and because clients can't generally leave if they are unsatisfied with their services (unless they have enough money to exercise other options - see below), a monopoly tends to be highly inefficient and lacks a spirit of innovation and creativity; change comes extremely slowly, if at all, as employees invested in the status quo use the bureaucratic structures of the system to prevent inconveniences and meaningful change.
And third, to ensure any level of quality in such a system, complex and rigid accountability structures have to be put into place (sound familiar, educators?). This is unlike a normal, market-driven enterprise which would simply close if it became inefficient and unresponsive to client needs and demands. And even under such byzantine accountability structures, quality remains lackluster (so we have tiny, slow, incremental improvements in student outcomes that will never meet the fast-changing demands of the global economy).
Kentucky has made academic gains that we should be genuinely proud of, including improving our high school graduation rates, college-and-career readiness rates, and overall elementary and middle school performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I don't believe that overall state-to-state comparisons in education are usually very valid (here's why), so I'm not particularly interested in how Kentucky allegedly compares to other states, but I do think we should celebrate the progress we've made. But our rate of improvement, however real, is not sufficient to keep up with the huge economic and cultural demands our schools are currently facing.
Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, has calculated how long it would take for Kentucky's fourth and eighth graders to reach just 80% proficiency in reading and math, based on our current rates of improvement (disclosure: I serve on the Bluegrass Institute's Board of Scholars). What Mr. Innes discovered is downright frightening. As the table below demonstrates, we won't see 80% of eighth graders proficient in math for another 126 years.
When you consider our historically under-achieving populations, the numbers are even more disturbing. Kentucky's rate of reading improvement for African American eighth graders is so slow it will take 277 years to reach just 80 percent proficiency.
These kinds of numbers convince me that our government-run monopoly on education is not working as well as it should for many students, and is downright awful in its neglect of our neediest children. We would be negligent not to consider every possible alternative for accelerating student learning opportunities. (And in a follow-up post I'll discuss what research says actually happens to student achievement when choice is introduced).
The fairness argument. Affluent families already have school choice. Because of their greater financial resources, they can afford to rent or buy homes in the districts or school zones with the best public schools, or to send their children to tuition-based schools. Low-income families lack these opportunities. And because they are more likely to rent, low-income families indirectly pay their landlord's property taxes without enjoying any of the tax benefits of home ownership, so they actually shoulder a disproportionate financial burden in supporting the education system but often are confined to the lowest-performing schools. This is patently unjust.
The consistency argument. There are public services that require little to no personalization. One size can indeed fit all when it comes to police and fire protection. But education is different. Every child is unique and every family's aspirations are different. In this way, education is like health care. We provide Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the low-income because we want quality health care access for all. But we don't stipulate which doctor or hospital Medicare and Medicaid patients must use because such decisions are highly personal. Likewise, we don't make food stamp recipients shop at government-run grocery stores. But perhaps the best example are higher education programs like Pell grants and the GI Bill, which students can use to attend the university of their own choice, whether public or private. Our goal is to increase education access for low-income students and veterans. Where they obtain their education is of lesser importance to us, though obviously there are regulations governing how universities can participate in these programs.
It is only in K-12 education that we deny low-income families a choice in what is perhaps the most important and personal of all decisions: who will educate their children and how.
In my next post I'll begin by describing some specific ways that policy makers have expanded educational choices for families, and what these ideas would look like in Kentucky's policy context, including charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, scholarship tax credits, and open district enrollment.
Additional posts in this series:
Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).