As state after state embraces policies that empower parents with more options in K-12 education, opponents of school choice are claiming that it is a “threat to democracy.” But if anything, school choice is better for democracy than government-run schooling.
In Texas, the legislature is considering an education choice bill that would make every K-12 student eligible for an education savings account (ESA). With an ESA, parents can use the state dollars associated with their child to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, homeschool materials, and other educational expenses. More than 60% of Texas voters support school choice, but critics claim the sky is falling.
“This is an existential threat to public education,” bellowed Representative James Talarico, a Democrat, in a October 11 webinar about the ESA bill, “and therefore an existential threat to democracy.”
This talking point has long been a staple of the teachers’ unions, even though states that have adopted robust school-choice policies have seen their district schools improve and still have democratic institutions. Earlier this year, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, alleged that school choice would “destroy public education as we know it,” and is therefore “bad for… democracy.”
Becky Pringle, President of the National Education Association (NEA), similarly claimed: “Public education is the foundation of our democracy,” adding “we must defend [public education] from those who would underfund, politicize, or dismantle it.” Although Pringle says she doesn’t want public education politicized, the NEA spent nearly $42 million in one year on political activism causes while spending less — $38 million — to fulfill its tasked role of protecting union members.
Yet, Pringle, Weingarten, and their political allies abhor parental empowerment through school choice. Instead, they want children held as a captive audience in the government school system, despite its track record of failing to effectively educate children. More children in government schools equals more teachers paying dues to her to funnel into political activism.
Freedom and self-government rely upon an educated citizenry. “If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People,” wrote Samuel Adams in 1779, “they will never be enslav’d. This will be their great Security.” Yet government-run K-12 schools are far from serving as the cornerstone of democracy. Indeed, they are neither necessary nor sufficient for producing informed, civic-minded citizens that a democratic society requires.
Government schools are clearly not sufficient to produce an informed citizenry because our more than century-long experiment with K-12 public education has produced dismal results. Nearly nine out of 10 adults attended a government-run K-12 school, yet fewer than half of Americans can name the three branches of government — and a quarter can’t name any branch at all.
Teaching students a historically accurate understanding of our nation’s founding and the role of government is not a priority. Instead, classroom instructional content too often centers on social justice, ethnic studies, and Marxist-inspired Critical Race Theory.
On the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress, American students’ history scores hit an all-time low. As the Associated Press reported, “40% of eighth grade students are performing below basic proficiency in history, meaning they likely cannot identify simple historical concepts in primary or secondary sources.” Only 13% scored at or above proficient in history. On the civics exam, students also fared poorly, with only 22% of American eighth grade students scoring at or above the proficient level.
Government-run schooling is clearly not sufficient to instill students with civic knowledge and values. Nevertheless, the union leaders might claim that government schools are still necessary to achieve these goals, even if they don’t always live up to their mission.
The evidence belies this claim.
As Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas has documented, the research literature on the effects of school choice policies on civic outcomes show an overwhelming advantage for school-choice policies over government-schooling. These findings include studies of the effects of different types of schooling on political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge and skills, and voluntarism and social capital.
Of the 93 findings regarding the effects on civic outcomes, 60% show a statistically significant advantage for school choice, while only 3% find an advantage for government-run schooling. About 37% of the findings show no discernable difference.
Advocates of government schools often claim that they are where people of all different backgrounds learn to live and work together. Yet, in the research on political tolerance — a virtue our nation needs direly today — there are 13 studies showing a private-school advantage and only one showing a government-school advantage. When it comes to civic knowledge and skills, 10 studies find a private-school advantage, six find no difference, and none find a government-school advantage.
School-choice policies even appear to foster law-abidingness and self-governance. One study, by Wolf and Dr. Corey DeAngelis, found that students participating in Milwaukee’s school choice program saw an 86% reduction in property damage convictions, a 53% reduction in drug crime convictions, and a 38% reduction in paternity suits.
The unions and their allies also claim that government schooling is a check on extremism. Do we want our tax dollars funding schools that teach extremist ideologies, including that people are defined by certain immutable characteristics such as race? Of course, that’s exactly what Critical Race Theory teaches, and government-run schools are suffused with it.
Parents are a much better check on extremism. This is obvious because government schools pushing extreme ideologies in the classroom have gone to great lengths to hide their indoctrination from parents. The greatest check on extremism in the classroom is academic transparency and parental choice in education.
School choice — not the government-run K-12 school monopoly — allows for the will of the people, which is true democracy. Parents have a much better record than government bureaucrats of choosing schools that instill their children with the civic knowledge and values necessary to preserve freedom, democracy, and the American way of life.