The Bottom Line School Choice (Part 2): The Great Equalizer

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part article. Part 1 can be read here.]

Enhancing Educational Opportunities

A common presupposition is that school choice options hurt students who remain in traditional public schools. This faulty misconception is at odds with empirical evidence that reveals students in traditional public schools benefit from improvements to their education due to choice-incentivized school competition.

When parents have choice options at their disposal, especially to move their students from a low-performing school to a higher-performing alternative, traditional public schools take notice — especially because their withdrawal can create a revenue loss for that school. Traditional public schools, whose monopoly is threatened, must respond by improving the education they offer, or they will continue to lose more students.

The lack of competition in the K-12 public education market has resulted in decades of subpar education for children. Consequently, the future of our nation is at stake within the increasingly globally competitive economy. For example, according to 2020 data from World Population Review, U.S. education falls 26th overall, with academic scores placing 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math despite leading the world in education spending — over $700 billion annually. Today, 70% of our children do not receive the education required to be prepared for life and the competitive career workforce. Dramatically expanding school choice has the potential to change the trajectory and revolutionize the U.S. K-12 education landscape.

The Council of Economic Advisers, in their report, Expanding Educational Opportunity through Choice and Competition, explain the significant benefits of school choice for students, especially students from low-income and minority groups:

“School choice can level the playing field and provide enhanced educational opportunity to all families, particularly when implemented to maximize competition and facilitate participation by disadvantaged students. The alternative to this modern form of school choice for the masses is the traditional system of school choice for the affluent and mobile, whereby those with financial means relocate to districts with better schools. In the traditional system, lower-income and minority students are disproportionately left behind in lower-performing schools, while other families may move away from neighborhoods that they enjoy solely to gain access to better schools. School choice programs that provide students with choices of public, charter, magnet, private, or home school can improve quality for all students, including those who remain in DPSs [district public schools] that are forced to adapt because of competitive pressure. Emerging empirical evidence has identified these positive effects at work in the United States.”

The Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President

State & Local Governments

The state and local governments play the largest role in financing and overseeing K-12 public education. Here is the funding breakdown:

  • 47% from state
  • 45% from local
  • 8% from federal

While there is much criticism at a national level of the U.S. Department of Education, the state and local levels hold the largest leverage over improving public education. They control 92% of the money spent and set many of the rules and regulations governing schools. Therefore, increased school choice measures have to happen at the state and local levels. The federal government plays its role by allocating more than half of its public education money to support students from low-income families and students with disabilities.

So, the ball is in the state and local governments’ court to expand school choice for those who live within their geographical radius of control. The benefits would be multi-dimensional. Studies indicate that school choice produces increased learning for students. It can also bolster civic engagement and reduce criminal behavior. Furthermore, numerous research studies have found that charter schools and voucher programs improve educational performance while spending less money per student each year.

The Current Reality

With all these advantages of school choice, why the adamant opposition from many and lack of widespread support from others? The answer boils down to this:  big government and teacher union dominance. Both passionately fight to keep control of the K-12 education system and the money that goes with it. The electorate could force the issue, of course. However, the general population remains painfully unaware of the decided advantages of school choice — particularly the opportunities it extends to America’s most disadvantaged and lowest-performing students.

In short, those championing equity, including those promoting the notion of equality of student outcomes, notoriously oppose school choice despite choice providing a powerfully effective avenue for reducing the opportunity gap. School choice could be the great equalizer — but state and local governments as well as teacher unions must relinquish their powerful grip on control and be willing to embrace the basic principles of free market within the U.S. K-12 educational sphere — allowing parents choice and an equitable opportunity for all students.

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part article. Part 1 can be read here.]

The American Center for Transforming Education promotes the expansion of public support for families to choose the schools they believe will best serve their children, whether traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, or virtual schools. To learn more about our work, please visit our Parental Choice webpage.

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The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?