Friday Freakout: Buy School Choice Week Because of Evidence, Not Hearsay

Today’s freakout comes from a reblog at the anti-school choice National Education Policy Center (NEPC), which is funded in part by the two largest national teachers’ unions. In it, author P.L. Thomas makes many claims that would get any school choice supporter’s hackles up. Instead, we decided to examine each from a practical perspective.  

1. In an effort to paint choice supporters as ignoring other issues of poverty that face families, Thomas quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

If those against school choice say poverty is the root of the problem and those for it say inequities in our education system are the root of the problem, in reality, perhaps it is a combination. So why not apply solutions for both? Our founder, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, actually conceived solutions for both: school choice and a guaranteed income.

For education:

For poverty:

 2. The author also said, “no parents or children should have to choose,” meaning every public school should be so great no family would ever want to leave. It’s hard to disagree with that idealism. But, the fact is, many do want to leave and who can fault them for that?

Very few, if any, would disagree that the politics and lack of consensus on the issues and solutions to improve public schools have prevented timely, meaningful change. As a result, because many parents cannot wait, they are asking for the ability to choose something different today for the sake of their children’s future.

Beyond that, there is no miracle solution for public schools. Nor is there one for private schools. Nor charter schools. Nor homeschools. There is no reform—and the author fails to offer any of his own—that will make all schools of all sectors identically “great.”

Why? People make a school, not just a building, money, or technology. And people are and will always be vastly different from one another. Until opponents of school choice can find a way to control the variable of human nature, funding students’ educational choices—no matter the setting—is the best way to minimize the number of students lost in our one-size-fits-all system.

3. Thomas entered the realm of research surrounding school choice, but only cited his own book’s data. We broke down his two most intriguing claims:

  • The author says that when one controls for external factors, all school sectors perform about the same. Perhaps, but the concern is not whether the average of the best and worst public schools is better or worse than the average of the best and worst private schools. The concern is whether students who get a scholarship do better or worse, personally, because they received a scholarship. There are 12 studies which examine that. See page 8 to see what they say.
  • He goes on to claim school choice supporters ignore what makes alternatives to public schools attractive, specifically small class sizes. In fact, the Friedman Foundation has produced studiesthat show Americans’ favorite education reform is smaller class sizes! We absolutely don’t ignore that most families desire small classrooms. What Thomas might have ignored is the reality that Americans are far from agreement when it comes to how to get to schools with smaller classrooms. Some say force it manually by spending more money (but they’re not sure how much more) to build more classrooms and hire more teachers. Others say to change how we distribute existing funds so parents’ school choices ease the burden of the sheer student numbers public schools currently enroll. Some also want to give public schools the same autonomy to diversify and customize that private and charter schools have. It’s our belief that demand via empowered families should determine how much it costs to reduce class sizes and force the hands of those that run schools to prioritize spending to do just that.

4. Finally, Thomas declared school choice advocates’ insistence that choice is about giving low-income families the same opportunities as the rich a manipulative lie. He went on to say freedom of choice is “dangerous” because if you give everyone taxpayer money, some abusers will make bad choices.

That is the same argument made by those who are against providing any aid to the impoverished, like through a guaranteed income! The public hasn’t decided to take away welfare services, or decided to condemn guaranteed income as an alternative concept, because of a few potential system abusers. The whole taxpayers-shouldn’t-have-to-foot-the-bill-for-poor-people-who-just-don’t-want-to-work-or-will-just-spend-their-money-on-booze argument (we’d guess) is not agreeable to Thomas, so why has he used the same one to scare people away from school choice? To use Thomas’s turn of phrase: Don’t buy it.