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Opening Doors for School Choice

In the past few years, educational choice has been on a roll. As one who’s been a supporter of full-spectrum choice since the last century, I find this to be a terrific thing. There’s broad public support and state legislatures across the land have been adding and expanding school choice programs at an impressive clip—with multiple states adopting education savings accounts that offer a vision of universal choice that would’ve been unimaginable even a few years ago. 

The reason for this success isn’t hard to fathom. During the pandemic, mediocre remote learning, bureaucratic inertia, and school closures taught many parents that they couldn’t count on school districts when families needed them most. 

Parents were left hungry for alternatives, especially amidst bitter disagreements over masking and woke ideology. This was all immensely practical. It wasn’t about moral imperatives or market abstractions. It was about empowering families to put their kids in schools that address their needs, reflect their values, and do their job. And it came even as families continued to voice support for their local public schools. 

There are important lessons here, several of which I discuss at more length in The Great School Rethink. The biggest may be the simplest: Families can want more options and still like their local schools

Polling consistently shows that the lion’s share of parents say they’d grade their kids’ schools an A or a B. At the same time, last year, more than seven in ten endorsed education savings accounts, school vouchers, and charter schools. In short, parents tend to like both their child’s public school and school choice policies. They don’t see a tension between the two. 

How do we reconcile parental support for more choices with affection for their local public schools? It’s not hard, really. Parents want options. They may wish for alternatives when it comes to scheduling, school safety, or instructional approach. They want the freedom to protect their kids from bullies or from school practices they find troubling. At the same time, though, they also value schools as community anchors, like their kid’s teachers, and may live where they do precisely because they like the local schools. 

Indeed, many apolitical parents who just want good options for their kids may be alienated by reformers who seem like revolutionaries. And yet choice advocates have too often opted for stridency, sometimes giving every impression of being downright giddy about the chance to disrupt lives and communities.

For decades, the school choice debate has tended to unfold as a weird morality play in which one is either for empowering parents or supporting public education. This framing is both unhelpful and deceptive. It ignores that all kinds of choices are hard-wired into American public education. Plus, it turns out that most Americans don’t buy into this false dichotomy, and that real parents don’t think this way. 

For many (or most) parents, taxpayers, and voters, brash calls to “blow up school districts” and “end zip code education” can sound a lot like calls to overturn the 2020 election or defund the police. This rhetoric sounds like the ravings of ideologues, rather than a practical strategy for aiding families or strengthening communities.

Children aren’t abstractions, and parents are generally loath to entrust their child’s well-being to radicals who talk as if they are. Yet, before the pandemic, the case for school choice was typically made in personal terms only when it came to freeing low-income students trapped in failing schools. This kind of appeal gives the impression that choice is only a last resort for those trapped in poverty; that it’s not all that relevant for other families. 

All the while, there’s been little appreciation for the limits of narrowly focusing on the worst-served urban families—even as a political strategy. After all, this approach tells the three-fourths of American parents who like their schools (and even disgruntled parents who live in rural areas and exurbs) that this isn’t about their kids or their communities. 

The pandemic pushed school choice advocates to focus on the practical and prosaic, and to broaden their appeal, with enormous success. That’s a lesson worth taking to heart as COVID-19 recedes.

Choice as the Norm, Not the Exception

While the school choice debate has long proceeded as though the notion of educational choice is a novelty, it’s fairer to say that choice is embedded in the DNA of public education. 

From start to finish, schooling is a stew of choices made by parents, students, educators, system officials, and policymakers. Parents choose whether to send their children to pre-K, when to start kindergarten, or whether to opt their child out of sex education. Students choose clubs and extracurriculars, which electives to take, and what to read for a book report. Teachers choose where to apply for a job, which materials to use, and how to deliver instruction. District staff choose policies governing discipline, curricula, field trips, and attendance zones.

Educational choice holds great promise for educators frustrated with the inertia of impersonal, stifling systems.

The fact is, the idea that parents or guardians will make fraught decisions on behalf of their kids is pretty normal. We take for granted that families will choose childcare providers, pediatricians, dentists, babysitters, and summer programs. Indeed, many such choices involve parents making decisions that are subsidized or paid for by government funds. And the choices they make have big implications for a child’s health and well-being. In short, there’s nothing unusual about families making publicly-subsidized decisions about how to raise their kids.

The school choice fight is especially odd given that, in a field like healthcare, even those most passionate about universal, publicly-funded coverage still believe that individuals should be free to choose their own doctor. Even the most ardent champion of public housing thinks families should get to choose where they live. 

It’s neither selfish nor risky for parents to want that kind of say in their child’s schooling. It’s normal. Meanwhile, what’s downright weird is not only that educational choice has occasioned such ire from opponents but also that the debate has focused so narrowly on students changing schools—even as those hostile to choice offer no objections when families choose elementary programs, high school courses, virtual options, and much else.

Equally weird is how choice proponents have too often ignored or dismissed educators over time. Now, the reality is that teacher unions have fought bitterly against educational choice, and the neglect of teachers has been a consequence of the focus on countering the political and legal onslaught of the unions. But the result has made teachers too often feel unwelcome, as though choice advocates are enemies, rather than potential liberators. The truth is that choice should be (and has been) a balm for frustrated teachers and school leaders—and this should be celebrated. Educational choice holds great promise for educators frustrated with the inertia of impersonal, stifling systems. Spend some time talking about school improvement with educators, and you’ll regularly hear phrases like “I’d like to do this, but the contract requires that” or “I’d love to do that but it’s not allowed.” Indeed, one of the takeaways from pandemic-era learning pods was the degree to which teachers were enthused about the flexibility, autonomy, and satisfaction they afforded.

The options that appeal to families can also empower teachers and school leaders who feel stuck in unresponsive schools or systems. Educators, like parents, can value public education while wanting more opportunities to find or create learning environments where they’ll be free from stifling rules, regulations, contract provisions, and customs.

A Broader, More Practical Focus

After the pandemic, millions of families are open to new possibilities and options. Indeed, more than half of all parents now say that they’d like to retain some degree of homeschooling going forward. Most don’t want to do it full-time, however. Some want the opportunity to homeschool one or two days a week and send their child to school the other days. Others, who’ve participated in microschools or learning pods, want the flexibility to take advantage of such offerings instead of a traditional school or as supplements to one.

There are parents concerned about specific curricula or instructional programs in their local schools, especially when states like California or Oregon have attempted to slash advanced offerings or reduce expectations. Such parents may like their school but want something more akin to “course choice”—the chance, for example, to opt out of their school’s math program and instead procure a math course from a well-regarded alternative provider. Parents may wish to make use of tutoring services that complement formal schooling but require resources many families may lack. In such cases, what parents may want is the flexibility to determine the mix of services their child receives rather than leaving one school for another.

Practicality matters. This is a big part of the explanation as to why school choice has enjoyed such mixed appeal in rural America. It’s not that culturally conservative families in small towns are hostile to the idea of choice, but rather that they view choice’s promise and promised disruptions through a context-dependent prism. While urban families may have a half-dozen elementary schools within walking distance, rural residents may face a thirty-mile drive to the next nearest middle school. There are simply more choices in a dense urban setting. Moreover, where metropolitan areas might be dense with professional sports teams, major universities, cultural centers, and youth leagues, small towns rely more on local schools to be community hubs. This means the downsides of disruption may be greater in small towns and exurbs. All of this makes for markedly different cost-benefit calculations when it comes to choice. 

Convinced that school choice constituted a market solution by itself, reformers were tempted to skimp on the hard parts.

Choice advocates should acknowledge these realities and shape their agenda accordingly. After all, even where there are natural limits on the appeal of school choice, that doesn’t necessarily limit the broader appeal of educational choice. Families can like their school and still want the option of different courses, online tutoring, better CTE, access to things like learning pods, and so on. Indeed, rural schools have enormous trouble finding enough highly-trained teachers in advanced STEM or world language classes—and, while changing schools won’t necessarily help with that, access to online offerings via course choice can make a huge difference. 

The optimal tool for allowing families to access a variety of choices, of course, may be the education savings account, which can meet the needs of families seeking to escape from unsafe, horrific schools and also those simply seeking a different mix of educational services.

Unfortunately, it’s taken a remarkably long time for this pedestrian observation to come into focus. Indeed, from the birth of the contemporary choice movement in the 1980s, the case for school choice was primarily understood as a moral one narrowly focused on allowing parents to flee subpar schools. Approaching choice as a matter of ethics more than political economy, proponents tended to favor sweeping moral claims over grittier concerns about deregulation and infrastructure. This is a big reason why choice advocates spent so much less time addressing the dynamics of deregulation than pro-market reformers have in sectors like transportation, telecommunications, and cable television.

For instance, empowering parents requires information as well as choice. Parents need more visibility into how and what schools are doing. The suspension of state assessments during the pandemic was a reminder of how useful a window these tests can provide into school performance. There’s also the matter of curricular transparency, the ability of parents to see what schools are teaching and what materials are being used so that they can make informed choices. In too many schools today, it’s difficult for a parent to have a clear sense of what their child is being taught. Parents’ requests for information have been met by vague or misleading “frameworks,” bureaucratic resistance, onerous fees, and even lawsuits from school districts or unions.

Today, it can be tough for parents to find comparable, trustworthy data on school safety, arts instruction, programs for high achievers, or the outcomes of former students. There is a gaping need for third parties to step up and play the role of a Zagat’s guide or Consumer Reports, providing accessible, independent information on K-12 schools. And there is an immense opportunity for philanthropists or civic-minded enterprises to help do something about it.

Going Forward

Over the decades, there have been long stretches when school choice seemed to flounder despite its obvious appeal. Befuddled advocates have lamented this state of affairs, even as they pitched a vision of choice narrowly focused on those families trapped in the lousy urban schools and inadvertently signaled that middle-class families just weren’t a priority. Worse, advocates seemed to delight in pugilistic rhetoric targeted at familiar local schools.

Perhaps most importantly, advocates overpromised and oversimplified. More than thirty years ago, in 1990 (the same year that Wisconsin created Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program), John Chubb and Terry Moe argued in their seminal volume, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, “Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. … It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways.” While the volume itself was invaluable, this advice proved anything but.

Indeed, faith in that panacea long served as a destructive distraction. Convinced that school choice constituted a market solution by itself, reformers were tempted to skimp on the hard parts. In fact, choice is only part of the market equation. It’s equally vital that regulation not smother new entrants, that market conditions reward cost-effective or high-quality providers, and that rules not mandate inefficient practices or subsidize ineffective providers. In education, those conditions were too rarely met. Choice became a soft slogan rather than a practical program.

In other sectors, reformers rarely focus on “choice” when it comes to market-based improvement. Thus, we don’t typically speak of “telecommunications choice” or “airline choice” but of deregulation, infrastructure, and supply-side dynamics. That’s because markets are a product of laws, norms, talent, information, and capital, and the absence of these can yield market failure—not because markets don’t work, but because they’re not a magic salve.

Just as school improvement does not miraculously happen without attention to instruction, curriculum, and school leadership, so a rule-laden, risk-averse sector dominated by entrenched bureaucracies, industrial-style collective-bargaining agreements, and hoary colleges of education will not casually remake itself just because students have the right to switch schools. Let me be painfully clear, because this point has sometimes been misunderstood. This is not a critique of choice-based reform, it’s an observation that choice alone is just a start—and that fulfilling its promise requires much more.

Looking ahead, there are at least four pandemic-era takeaways for school choice. 

First, be clear that the point is to offer options and solve problems, not to embrace disruption for its own sake. That should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how often impassioned advocates wind up sounding like disruption is the goal. Now, this isn’t unique to education. In fields ranging from electric vehicles to free trade, the cause tends to suffer when the practical arguments get overshadowed by evangelists excited about the demise of the old order. It’s important to remember that people can like electric cars or cheaper goods without being excited about revolution. Disruption may be necessary and appropriate, but that doesn’t mean it’s cause for celebration. Moreover, it’s both humane and politic to appreciate how change impacts families and communities (especially in less densely-populated geographies), take their concerns seriously, and offer practical remedies—from using course choice to expand CTE offerings to ensuring that home-schooled or microschooled students have access to varsity-level athletics. 

Second, focus on how choice will actually work for families and educators. What are private and public entities doing to help parents get the information they need to make informed choices? How will transportation challenges be addressed, barriers to new providers lowered, or quick-buck artists monitored? What kinds of obstacles face those seeking to launch new schools or offerings, and what resources exist to help them navigate such barriers? And how does all of this work for educators, in terms of everything from professional opportunities to pensions?

Third, don’t neglect to explain how and why empowering families and educators may actually serve public ends more effectively than top-down district bureaucracies. Take the case of good citizenship. As University of Arkansas’s Patrick Wolf has argued, the evidence suggests that private schools do a better job than their public counterparts of promoting tolerance, democratic participation, civic knowledge, and voluntarism (it’s thought that this may be because they have a clearer sense of mission, more trust, and are less hamstrung by politics.)

Finally, focus on how choice can serve all families, not just the worst off. The choice coalition should be both/and—serving all manner of needs. It should serve families that need a lifeboat out of schools that are unsafe, academically inept, or where ideologues have run amok. It should also serve families frustrated with mediocre math instruction, schools reliant on long-term subs to teach world languages, or seeking more responsive school leadership. A satisfactory resolution may require changing schools, but it may also mean having more opportunities to make all manner of more modest changes or choices—which is why educational choice should encompass homeschooling, learning pods, off-site options for career and technical education, and high-quality online alternatives for math or history. In practice, families may have concerns about nominally “good” schools for all kinds of reasons, and that’s okay. What works in New York City may not translate to north Texas, and there’s no reason to expect it should.

More than a decade ago, in National Affairs, I observed:

It was [Milton] Friedman who admonished that the market “is not a cow to be milked.” And it was [Friedrich] Hayek who, in collecting his Nobel Prize, encouraged policymakers to think of themselves as gardeners—creating the conditions in which enterprise could flourish. Neither Friedman nor Hayek believed that markets were self-sustaining or failsafe. Their approach to market-based reform was not the enthusiastic cheerleading of the choice movement; it was a far sterner, grittier charge. And as school choice now enters its third decade, its champions would be wise to take the counsel of Friedman and Hayek to heart.

Now, as school choice enters its fourth decade with a strong wind at its back, that reminder is truer than ever.