Image Above: Parents and teachers blessing students at St. Joseph School, Bowling Green, on opening day 2015. School choice programs like scholarship tax credits would enable more low-income students to attend schools like St. Joseph.
In this series of posts I've attempted to explain in a straightforward way the basic argument for why the government should not have a monopoly on education delivery, and the kinds of policy options that give parents more choices in where their children attend school. In this final post I'd like to address some of the most common questions and objections that are raised about school choice.
Won't school choice policies drain money from already-needy public schools?
As I've written before, this concern only makes sense if you assume that government schools should have a monopoly on educational delivery. If you assume, instead, that education dollars should flow to the school of each student's choice, then it makes no sense to say that such a choice "drains" money from the school that isn't chosen. We have two hospitals here in Bowling Green. We don't say that we are "draining money" from the Medical Center because a Medicare patient chooses to use her benefit for a procedure at Greenview Hospital. We don't think that way because we don't care which hospital she uses as long as she is getting quality health care. Medicare is designed to provide health care access for the elderly, not to prop up the operations of one hospital over another.
That said, if we introduced school choice into our current system, and if students did choose to leave their assigned district school, then certainly those would not be dollars that would continue to be held by those schools. If very large numbers of students left their assigned school, this could obviously create a problem for the school being left, but a mass exodus would indicate that parents are seriously dissatisfied with the education their children are receiving. It would be a sign that something dramatic needs to change in that school.
Nevertheless, that's not what tends to happen in reality. Certainly some students do leave their assigned school when choice is introduced, but the numbers tend to be small enough that the net financial result is a positive one for taxpayers. Schools of choice typically educate students at a lower per pupil cost than district schools, meaning more money is left over for district schools or in public coffers.
Wouldn't private school choice potentially violate the separation of church and state?
First, it's important to note that the words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, even though this term was sometimes used by some of the Framers in their discussions about the First Amendment. Rather, that Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." Jurists have long argued about what this actually means, but in the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court ruled that Cleveland's voucher program, which included faith-based schools, does not violate the Establishment Clause. The majority's rationale was that the Establishment Clause requires the state to take a neutral position toward religion, and that the Cleveland voucher program maintained neutrality because the state provided the voucher benefit directly to families, who were then responsible for deciding which kind of school their child would attend. The state did not favor religious schools over non-religious schools or vice versa in the application of the voucher program. I would equate this policy to the federal Pell grant program, which provides financial assistance for low-students to attend the university of their choice, including private, faith-based options. The benefit is for the student; the state is neutral in regards to where that benefit is used.
Nevertheless, many states have constitutional provisions that go farther than the U.S. Constitution in prohibiting the flow of public funds to faith-based K-12 schools. Section 189 of the Kentucky Constitution does this explicitly, meaning that a voucher program would be difficult to pass a legal challenge here. This is why charter schools and scholarship tax credits (both discussed in my previous post) are the most likely and promising school choice mechanisms in Kentucky.
What does the research say about school choice and student achievement?
Many empirical studies have been conducted using a variety of methods to analyze the impact of school choice on student learning. The general consensus from the best of these studies is that low-income students and students of color tend to outperform their demographically similar peers in traditional public schools when they attend choice schools. Of course, one can find exceptional studies that contradict this general trend. Each study has to be evaluated on its own merits and based on the context involved. What matters to me is the general trend in the research, which strongly indicates that when choice is introduced, student learning increases not just for students who select to attend schools of choice, but also for the students who stay behind in traditional public schools. No one has demonstrated exactly why this happens, but it stands to reason that a bit of competition causes all schools to step up their game.
But won't school choice lead to segregated schools?
Schools of choice are generally prohibited from making admissions decisions using race as a consideration. But what appears to usually happen is that students of color tend to move from more segregated schools to less segregated schools, further contributing to the diversity of the schools of choice themselves - just the opposite of more racial separation.
But wouldn't school choice cause a deeper fracturing of society into like-minded enclaves? What about the idea that public schools are a socially and politically unifying force?
Where is the evidence that government-run schooling leads to more social unity? In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that when the government has a monopoly on education, we get more intense and ugly battles for control of the system itself as every faction must politically dominate the system to bend it to its agenda and desired ends. What research actually suggests is that students who attend choice schools demonstrate greater lifetime levels of social tolerance and civic engagement than their peers educated in traditional public schools. So no, school choice does not cause social fragmentation. In fact, it responds in a positive way to the fragmented nature of modern American culture.
Would schools of choice be required to serve students with disabilities?
Perhaps. You could certainly write school choice policies in a way that would require schools of choice to do so. But that might not actually be in the interests of students with disabilities themselves. Generally, schools of choice are highly reluctant to turn away potential students since their entire operation depends on enrollment. But a small private school might find it impossible to meet all of the requirements of federal special education law. Nevertheless, parents of a student with a disability might still want to choose such a school because it is a better fit for their child. A family should not be denied their choice of schools if they are willing to select a school that is not fully compliant with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). And, in fact, many such families do and as I noted in my previous post, many choice policies apply specifically to students with disabilities.
Likewise, some schools might specialize in meeting the needs of certain students with disabilities. If a school specializes in dyslexia, for example, should parents be denied the opportunity to send their dyslexic child to this school simply because it isn't equipped to also deal with severe autism spectrum disorders? The bottom line is that school choice broadens learning opportunities for all students, including those with disabilities.
How do we ensure that schools of choice are high quality?
How do we ensure that traditional public schools are of high quality? How do we ensure that automobiles sold in the United States are safe? Accountability systems of various sorts would remain in a school choice environment. Regulation would be necessary to ensure a mechanism for dealing with fraud and perpetually low student achievement. Let's have arguments about what those accountability and monitoring systems would look like, instead of whether we should give low-income families a choice at all.
What happens to students who stay behind in low-performing public schools?
As we've said earlier, the general trend is that student achievement improves in such schools when choice is introduced, and local districts are often left with more resources per pupil to meet those students' needs.
What if some parents don't care enough or aren't educated enough to exercise choice?
Mechanisms to help parents be knowledgeable about their options would need to be created. But I want caution us against assuming that poor parents are too ignorant to make choices for their children. There is a kind of dark paternalism at work in this assumption. And at any rate, should we deny all poor families a choice in who educates their children just because some of them won't exercise a choice? Some families struggle to make good health care choices as well, but as of yet we don't deny them such choices where available.
What if parents don't have transportation to take full advantage of school choice?
There is evidence that choice is sometimes limited based on the ability of parents to transport their children. Of course one way to address this is to ensure that generous transportation funding is included in the amount of money that follows each child to his/her school of choice. Transportation is one of those reasons that makes school choice a much more viable policy in urban or metropolitan areas. But that should not be a reason to oppose school choice. I would like to occasionally eat at a Five Star restaurant here in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Because of market forces we don't have such a restaurant here and likely never will. But that doesn't mean Five Star restaurants should be banned in communities that could support such an establishment, right?
Can't we just give parents a choice among public schools?
Certainly, and we should (see my discussion of open enrollment policies in my last post). Many public school districts are now experimenting with innovation academies, magnet schools of various sorts, and intra-district transfer policies. These are all good. But giving parents a choice among schools all run by the local district is like saying you can only buy your shoes at Target, but you can get boots, sneakers, sandals, etc. It's great to have those choices, but you should be able to also buy your shoes from another store if that's your wish. Our current education system says you can buy your shoes wherever you want - as long as you are affluent. If you're poor - you only get Target (or some other vendor - but no others).
What makes you think school choice is the silver bullet solution to all our education problems?
I don't, and I don't know any school choice supporter who thinks that. For a variety of reasons, the local district schools are going to continue to be the schools of choice for the vast majority of students. Schools of all kinds are going to need on-going improvement and support in their curriculum, teaching, and assessment. Effective leadership is essential to schools of all kinds. Education funding in general is probably insufficient for the challenges our schools are facing.
There is and will remain much work to be done to ensure high quality schools for all students, whether public, charter, parochial, or independent. In fact, I'd really enjoy moving forward with that work, but I'm finding I'm spending a large amount of time defending the idea that all parents, regardless of income or ZIP code, should have access to that full range of schools. I hope this primer has helped to advance us toward that time when we can stop arguing about whether all families should have access to a wide array of schools, and focus instead on ensuring that all of those options truly are great.
Other posts in this series:
Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (where I work) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).