The School Choice Debate
School choice is a topic that has once again become prominent in discussions about education. The appointment by the Trump administration of Betsy DeVos, an outspoken advocate of school choice as Secretary of Education, has reignited the debate around the issue. The Trump administration has made the expansion of school choice a central aspect of their education agenda. Extensive funds have been allocated to policies to expand school choice, including the promotion of school voucher programs and increased funds being available for charter schools. Her appointment has been met with reservation and scepticism by many teachers and especially teachers’ unions, who accuse her of an anti-public school agenda. Meanwhile, recent trials of school voucher programs in states such as North Carolina have also helped to reignite the debate around school choice. The expansion of school choice, while having been on the agenda of both the Bush and Obama administrations, has not been so central to discussions of education policy in many years.
The school choice debate is not a new one by any means. For several decades now, various school choice programs have been proposed to reform education in the United States. One of the reasons why school choice programs face difficulty in succeeding during recent times in particular is that they are often portrayed as a left-right issue. Typically, though not always, it is the right side of politics who campaign for school choice, with the left often opposing these measures. However, this has not always been the case. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, progressives led many ambitious programs to increase school choice. Many of the early efforts to expand school choice were lead by liberal Democrats, such as California’s Leo Ryan. Progressives back then supported expanding school choice for multiple reasons. Firstly, they believed that the prevailing system of assigning students to school by their postal code was discriminatory to students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They also believed that expanding school choice would help alleviate racial disparities in education. Spurred on by the spirit of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, these reformers saw school choice as a way of empowering disadvantaged communities and families to get ahead in life.
At present, school choice is a controversial issue among educators and teachers’ unions in particular. Recent protests in Arizona and several other red states highlight this fact. The teachers’ strikes in Arizona were primarily an issue of pay. However, the issue of school vouchers was also raised by many protesting teachers. Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, embarked on an ambitious voucher program which allows any family to draw on public funds to pay private school expenses. Many of the teachers who protested see this move as an attack on public schools and on education in general. Even after a deal was reached between the state and teachers, scepticism from the teachers’ union in Arizona remained.
Overall support for school choice varies significantly, depending on how the issue is framed. A recent study was conducted in the state of Wisconsin to survey people’s attitudes toward the issue. When asking respondents about the issue, several different messages were presented. Significantly different results occurred, depending on whether the respondent was a Democrat or a Republican. For instance, messaging which emphasised traditional values and civic virtue when promoting the benefit of school choice resonated well with Republicans. Republicans overall were found to be more favourable to school choice than Democrats.
For Democrats, who are less favourable to school choice in general, explaining how school choice could promote racial diversity and even the playing field for low-income students resulted in a sizeable increase of positive responses. When messaging was framed in this way, 51 per cent of Democrats favoured school choice, compared to only 29 per cent if given only a more basic definition of school choice. A similar percentage of Democrats, 54%, support tax credits for “individual and corporate donations that pay for [voucher-like] scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.” Despite this, only a handful of Democratic governors support expanding school choice.
Tailoring the message to values, rather than emphasising the academic results has been shown to be more effective. People of different ideological persuasions interpret information in different ways. A recent study adds credence to this argument. For his doctoral dissertation entitled “The Societal Impacts of Private School Choice around the World”, Corey DeAngelis examined the effects of private schooling on educational achievement and on non-cognitive skills. The first portion of the dissertation looks at the effects of private school enrolment on scores in the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA). It found that every 1 percent increase in private school enrolment led to a 1.4 and 1.1-point increase in results in maths and reading respectively. The second portion delves into data from 300,000 students in 44 countries. It found that private schooling resulted in significant gains across the board, particularly in STEM subjects. Finally, private school attendance through to 12th grade was found to significantly reduce the chances of having a criminal record. These results show that there are strong arguments both academically and morally for favouring school choice expansion. On a more practical level, there are arguments that can be tailored from these results to people of a variety of ideological persuasions.
Even though pointing out academic results may not be the most effective rhetorical device for winning over school choice sceptics, the academic case for allowing increased school choice is nonetheless compelling. An examination of recent PISA figures in the United States has found overall scores flatlining in recent years. Students who are already below average in achievement have fallen further behind in recent years. It is important to consider that around 90% of students in the United States attend public schools at present. With this in mind, there is clearly lots of room for expanding the proportion of students in private and charter schools.
Another overlooked aspect of the debate, particularly in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, is that of freedom of choice for teachers. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that teachers no longer had to pay fees to teachers’ unions if they did not want to be a part of one. Previously, such fees were compulsory for teachers, regardless of union membership. This change is an important one, as it puts more impetus on the unions to justify their membership and to deliver results for teachers. Coupled with competition from charter and private schools, teacher salaries generally rise compared to a union-dominated school system. Competition is an integral part of any industry to ensure accountability and high standards. Education should be no exception to this.
While some scepticism of funding arrangements for voucher proposals and other school choice reforms is understandable and valid, expanding school choice is prudent policy. The evidence in favour of expanded school choice is clear, and continually expanding. Private and charter schools have shown to deliver superior results in a majority of instances compared to public schools. The mere presence of private and charter schools in close proximity to public schools has shown positive effects on results in schools in a half-mile radius. Aside from this, the moral case for school choice is clear. Every child deserves the opportunity at the best education possible. Expanding school choice and giving parents and students greater freedom to choose a school that best fits their needs is imperative to realise this goal. As the likes of Leo Ryan and other progressive advocates of school choice recognised more than 40 years ago, expanding school choice is the best way to ensure egalitarian outcomes in education. It is time school choice opponents, particularly those on the Left, recognised the value of school choice in education and got behind these reforms.