School choice should be the status quo

As a former public high school teacher, I have seen firsthand how antiquated, bureaucratic, and irresponsive to the unique needs of students our nation's public school system has become.  In affluent suburbs, like where I grew up, the public schools are generally good at providing a decent education.  However, in far too many rural and urban public schools, this is generally not the case.

Although there are several reasons for the discrepancies between suburban and urban/rural school districts, there is a simple solution that could truly level the playing field in education once and for all: school choice.

According to EdChoice, "[s]chool choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs — whether that's to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids."

In other words, in a world where school choice is rampant, all students would receive a sum of money to use — or more accurately, their parent(s) or guardian(s) — toward the best educational experience for their unique needs and circumstances.  Doesn't this seem like a terrific idea?

Well, according to the vast majority of Americans, that would be a resounding yes.  In January 2019, a "survey of 1,200 likely November 2020 voters showed that 67% of voters support school choice, an increase of 4 percentage points compared to the 2018 National School Choice Poll."

And support for school choice is across the board.  Below are the demographic breakdowns of the poll referenced above, which was performed by a Democratic polling firm, Beck Research.

  • Latinos: 73 percent support school choice
  • Whites: 68 percent support school choice
  • African Americans: 67 percent support school choice
  • Millennials: 75 percent support school choice
  • Parents and grandparents: 72 percent support school choice
  • Rural/Exurban Voters: 68 percent support school choice
  • Suburban Voters: 64 percent support school choice
  • Republicans: 80 percent support school choice
  • Independents: 69 percent support school choice       
  • Democrats: 56 percent support school choice

Several studies (and an untold number of anecdotes) underpin these results.  Overwhelming evidence also indicates that students participating in school choice programs outperform their peers who are hopelessly stuck in poorly performing public schools.

If one refuses to believe or acknowledge that school choice is incredibly popular and that students "lucky" enough to participate in school choice are better off than their peers in public schools, then one probably has an agenda or is immune to common sense and unequivocal facts.

However, it remains that school choice is much more the exception than the norm.  Throughout America, the vast majority of families have absolutely no choice when it comes to arguably the most important element of their children's futures: the school they attend.

This is complete cognitive dissonance.  Think about how backwards this all is.  Almost every demographic group in every part of the country prodigiously supports school choice.  This enormous support even crosses political lines, in a time when America is arguably more divided on political issues than ever before.  So why is school choice so rare in practice when it is so popular?

Two words: teacher unions.  Yes, this is the sad truth.  Teacher unions are very powerful.  They represent millions of public school teachers, who oppose school choice and pay dues that are used to support politicians who refuse to implement school choice.

This is not intended to trash teacher unions.  Most teachers are good people who care about their students, no doubt about it.  Yet teachers unions hold immense political power.  And these unions, namely the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, totally oppose school choice.  Why?  Because it would spell the end of their monopoly on education in the United States.

As of now, unless your family has the means to pay for an alternative, almost every American child attends the public school based on his ZIP code.  How ridiculous is that?

Unfettered school choice would raise the educational bar for all students.  Robust competition for students would force schools, all schools, to put the needs of children first.  Otherwise, they would go out of business because parents would not send their children to a failing or dangerous school when they have so many other opportunities and schools to choose from.

Education is essential, like food and shelter.  Restaurants compete for patrons, and by doing so, we have almost infinite choices of cuisine, and quality establishments thrive.  A restaurant that provides good products at a fair price remains in business, while restaurants that provide inferior products at an unreasonable price typically go the way of the dodo.

This premise is true for all products and services, including education.  It is time to terminate the dysfunctional public school monopoly and grant all parents and students their right to choose the school that best fits their needs.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.org) is an editor at The Heartland Institute.