Like most advanced democracies, America has a large public school system where around 82% of K-12 students are enrolled. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things started to change. Many felt that the public education system was not answering correctly to the pandemic. School choice programs began to grow in popularity.
So why is school choice so important today in America?
To answer that question, we need to define what school choice really means.
“School choice is what I call funding students instead of institutions. It’s the idea that a child’s education dollars should follow them whenever they’re getting an education. That could be the traditional public school where children tend to be residentially assigned to, or a charter, religious or non-religious private school,” Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, said to El American.
Why has school choice gained traction?
“School choice is more important now than it ever has been before—and more parents are learning during the pandemic that they haven’t had choices in the past or that their school isn’t meeting their needs right now. Choice is fundamental and expected in all parts of our lives, and K-12 education should not be an exception,” Robert Enlow, CEO and President of EdChoice told El American.
School choice has always been popular among religious families that see that public education does not fulfill the faith-based education they want to give to their children. That’s why around 40% of the private schools in the U.S. are Catholic and provide significantly lower tuition than most of the rest of private schools.
To this end, El American also spoke with Rev. Thomas Daly, Bishop of Spokane and chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Unfortunately, most public education, depending on where a family lives, is not morally neutral. Many times the sex-ed or family life curriculum is written or influenced by Planned Parenthood. So, already you have an agenda there that is contrary to the teachings of families trying to live their Catholic faith, often working very hard and not necessarily attuned always to what goes on in the educational process.”
“And Catholic education as that choice emphasizes that the student is important not because he’s sitting on a desk learning, but because they’re beloved sons and daughters of God,” Bishop Daly said.
Yet, school choice is now popular not only due to faith or value-based arguments. Many teachers’ unions in the U.S. have fought not to reopen their schools due to COVID-19; parents have been in a tough situation where they are forced to continue with online learning for their children.
“if your school doesn’t reopen families should be able to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere. Money is supposed to be for educating children. It’s not supposed to be going to buildings regardless of if they are providing an adequate education,” DeAngelis added.
However, this situation has had a positive effect on the perception of school choice in America.
The latest RealClear Opinion Research poll found that since April, support for school choice has gone up 10%, from 67% in April to 77% in August.
“This polling data shows one of the most astounding short-term jumps in support for educational choice policies,” John Schilling, president of the American Federation of Children, said about the poll.
“Families are incredibly frustrated at the district schools’ response to this crisis (…) families are desperate for other options and will support governors and other policymakers as they pursue policies that let them control their child’s education funding,” he added
Nonetheless, is it safe to reopen schools during the pandemic?
“There’s tons of evidence now that suggests that it’s safe to reopen schools and that there isn’t a strong indication of a link between reopening school and transmission of the virus. Anthony Fauci said that substantial data suggests that transmission from children and among children is not a huge issue,” DeAngelis stressed.
Brown University’s Emily Oster tracked positivity rates in the schools relative to the overall community. She found all across the country that case rates are much lower in schools than in the overall community, which suggests that schools aren’t causing any upticks in the overall community” he added.
The lack of response from Teachers’ Unions, such as the Chicago’s, which has threatened to go on strike, among many other unions, have led many families to view private education and school choice with better eyes. For example, Robert Enlow says that “we found that every type of school choice is polling at the highest support level since we began polling eight years ago.”
According to Bishop Thomas Daly, this has had a positive impact on the Catholic school’s enrollment.
“I believe parents have seen that Catholic schools are very much aware of the risk but also have a plan in place and were able to pivot quickly. It’s been done safely, with protocols for health, whereas in the public schools it hasn’t always been clear why aren’t they open.”
“We have an increasing enrollment in certain dioceses and we have had to put waitlists on our schools, but the blessing has been that we have been able to provide in-person learning and parents are seeing how important that is for the education and the social and psychological health of young people,” Daly stated.
School choice critics
In a country where the public school system is so ingrained, it is normal to see school choice being criticized in the public arena.
For example, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post said that “Critics argue that using public funds to support choice schools is undermining the traditional public system, which educates the majority of America’s school-age children.”
An EdWeek study considered that school choice programs fall short on transparency and accountability. The survey found that among the almost 30 states that have school choice programs:
- 11 require that all teachers have a BA
- 14 mandate background checks on all staff
- 6 require reporting graduation rates
This, critics say, leads to less accountability and, hence, worse performance among these schools.
This is not the only criticism against school choice. One common argument among teachers’ unions is that school choice defunds public education because it takes the tax dollars away from schools which, they say, are already terribly underfunded.
Another common argument is well-exemplified in the words of NH State Senator, Janne Dietsch, who said in an education committee hearing about a school choice program that “This idea of parental choice, that’s great if the parent is well-educated. But to make it available to everyone? No. I think you’re asking for a huge amount of trouble.”
What do supporters say?
“School choice doesn’t defund public schools, public schools defund families. School choice initiatives just take that money and return it to the rightful owners’ hands: the families. The education funding is supposed to be meant for educating the child, not for protecting a government monopoly,” DeAngelis said about the defunding argument against school choice.
“Do you ever hear the argument that allowing families to choose their grocery store “defunds” Safeway or Walmart, that would be absolutely ridiculous, right? Your money doesn’t belong to any of these institutions. I similarly argue that it shouldn’t belong to any schooling institutions either. It belongs to the family because the purpose of the education funding is the child.”
“If we had a free-ranging choice, you might see a large number of people leaving the public school system, and that’s why I think the teachers’ unions fight really hard against allowing families to have that choice. It’s an admission that they understand that they’re not providing a service that is valuable to families,” he added.
As for the quesiton of accountability, Robert Enlow says that families do not see test scores as the sole metric for their children’s education. “They may place equal or greater value on school safety and moral education.”
However, that does not mean that all school choice supporters say there should not be any regulation.
“I think there is a threshold of reasonable regulation on which we can predicate receipt of public funding. Now, we can have debates about where the red line should be drawn,” said John Schoenig, member of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, in an interview with EdWeek. “I think it is fair to draw the red line at, for example, being able to in some way verify that the teachers in the schools meet some minimum standard of reliability and quality.”
Supporters also argue that what leads to proper accountability is bottom-down accountability and not red tape.
“If a private school underperforms, it shuts down. If a charter school underperforms, it shuts down. If a district-run school underperforms, it gets more money. The reality is that private and charter schools are directly accountable to families. If the family sees that this particular teacher isn’t high quality enough for their child, they can take their money elsewhere. It’s not that all these regulations have led to high quality in the traditional public school system,” DeAngelis stated.
“Catholic schools are part of a diocesan system, there’s an oversight with the secretary of education or superintendent or vicar, so Catholic schools have accountability,” Bishop Daly added about the supposed lack of accountability in private school choice programs.
Some critics argue that school choice should not be made available to religious schools. They were based mostly on the so-called “Blaine Amendments” many states had in their constitutions, which forbid state funding for religious educational institutions. However, the Supreme Court struck down Montana’s Blaine Amendment last year.
“To have a lock on the educational process is not in keeping with the pluralistic attitude of life in America. Religion should never be dismissed; religion has been very important in the history of this nation. I think one way the commitment of the U.S. to the variety of learning experiences can be furthered is to allow choice, especially for families that may have economic challenges,” said Bishop Daly.
As for those who oppose school choice because “uneducated” people should not choose the educational setting of their children, Corey DeAngelis said that “It’s the paternalistic argument against school choice, and I think it’s the worst argument that anybody can make against it. You don’t have to be an expert educator to pick a school. You don’t have to be a doctor to pick your doctor. You don’t have to be a nutrition expert to be able to pick up groceries that work for your family.”
“But it’s even worse than that because it implies that, “uneducated” people that don’t have college degrees can’t make a choice for their children, which is absolutely ridiculous.”
“The bottom line is a question of who should be driving the conversation about choice: parents and families who are looking for the best fit for their kids or bureaucrats who believe they know better?” Robert Enlow said.
School choice under Biden
“The choice movement has been around for decades, though it has changed over time, gaining momentum in the last 15 years. Most Republicans are big choice supporters, but many Democrats are,” WaPo’s Valerie Strauss noted in the above-mentioned article.
As a result, school choice is considered more important than ever. According to EdChoice stats, 63% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans support school choice initiatives. The support is also similar among racial lines: 69% of blacks and 70% of Latinos support school choice.
“School choice is supported by Democrat and Republican voters, but when you look at state legislatures, it typically tends to be more of a one-sided thing where Republicans are more likely to vote for it in the state legislatures. When you’re looking at the voters themselves, it’s bipartisan,” DeAngelis said.
Why is this support bipartisan? Advantaged families already have a degree of choice because they have the money to move to a better school district or enroll their children in a private school, but minorities and working-class people usually don’t have this sort of choice.
“School choice in a sense is an equalizer: at the same time, it allows the funding to follow the student, and it funds the student directly allowing for more opportunities and more choices for a larger section of the population, which leads to more equity,” said Corey DeAngelis.
“Keeping the schools closed during the pandemic and not offering school choice is adversely affecting the least advantaged in society. This is a great argument to open the schools and give families the option whether they want virtual or in-person, but then also to fund the students directly so that families can have a choice.”
Although some Biden administration members and supporters have expressed strong anti-choice views, especially against charter schools, his choice of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education was seen as a compromise candidate.
“He is certainly much less polarizing than the current and former leaders of the nation’s largest teachers unions, but that doesn’t mean that the administration will be friendly towards educational freedom. Biden’s team has indicated that they intend to pull federal funding from certain types of charter schools, for example,” DeAngelis said.
“I would say that it is a distinct possibility. President Biden seems supportive of teacher’s unions who have publicly held views contrary to choice,” Bishop Daly added regarding of a potential attack on school choice from the Biden administration.
One positive aspect for school choice supporters is that, although the federal government might be somewhat hostile towards it, the bulk of the education funding is at the state level. The federal government, therefore, has limitations on what it can do against school choice.
“We have historically worked at the state level to implement school choice programs, and our approach has been consistent no matter who’s occupying the White House. The bulk of K-12 funding is at the state level, and we believe state and local policymakers are in the best position to know what their constituents need.”
Support for school choice is bipartisan but Democratic politicians seem less inclined to support it. It has consequently become a key policy area where Republicans can garner support from minorities and working-class people. In fact, a good example of this is the tight 2018 Florida gubernatorial race where Ron DeSantis won the election, some say, thanks to “school choice moms.”
Despite facing an African-American adversary, Andrew Gillum, DeSantis received 18% of votes from black women, which is way higher than the GOP average among black women (7%).
This amounts to around 100,000 votes and DeSantis won the race by less than 35,000 votes approximately. William Mattox said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that this is due to school choice. Over 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in just one of Florida’s school choice programs which grants tax-credit scholarships. Most of the beneficiaries of these programs are minorities and even registered Democrats.
“The unexpected outcome of the Florida governor’s race should encourage Republicans nationwide to pitch their education agenda to minority voters. It should also prompt Democrats to rethink their blind allegiance to teachers’ Unions,” the article states.
“When you get families benefiting directly from these types of options, it creates a new special interest. We hear about the teachers’ unions being a special interest all the time. But once you get school choice, you can create a new, special interest, which is families fighting for their own children. They’re going to fight hard to keep that opportunity when given a chance,” DeAngelis said.
“I’m thinking 2021 is going to be the year of school choice. If you look at the election results at the state legislatures, they are looking good when it comes to passing private school choice programs and that’s where the bulk of the money is,” he added.