Friday Freakout: Does School Choice Destroy a Public Good?

Today’s freakout comes to us from Twitter, and its message is at the top of school choice opponents’ list of arguments. In fact, it is a favorite of Diane Ravitch’s, one of the figureheads of the anti-school choice movement.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-10-at-1-55.39-PM 2

Ms. Watts argues that allowing parents to choose non-public schools for their children with the help of school choice programs is essentially destroying a public good. But we believe she has it backwards:

The public good of a “free” education and its accompanied opportunities is not lost with the addition of school choice programs; it’s strengthened for those who might have otherwise fallen behind or chosen to give up.

Inevitably there are children who struggle in public schools, not because those schools are “failing,” but because the traditional model just isn’t a perfect fit for their perhaps untraditional needs. As Milton Friedman said, “Perfection is not of this world.” With school choice options, those kids can access a more suitable school or combination of services where they can learn and feel proud to have chosen for themselves.

Our point? With school choice programs as an option:

  1. Kids who were learning well in public schools are able to continue doing so.
  2. The kids who weren’t learning well in public schools are now able to do so in a different setting.
  3. Both sets of kids are educated for free – courtesy of taxpayers.

Public education is about educating the public. In a school choice system, taxpayer dollars are still available to provide all families a free education. But in this instance, parents are directing those dollars toward a diverse menu of schools – public, private, charter, virtual, blended, home, or otherwise – that are teaching kids. The public good remains intact. The most important distinguishing characteristic is that parents need only worry about choosing a good school instead of finding ways to get in the right ZIP Code to access their public school of choice.

School choice opponents balk at this idea. There are two widespread misconceptions in the anti-choice camp:

  1. Because there are some “bad” parents on the far end of the spectrum who will make “bad” decisions for their children, no parents should be trusted to make school choices for their children.
  2. Even if we trusted parents to make school choices, the government has no jurisdiction over private schools, so they can do and teach anything they want. We could be allowing parents to choose schools that are structurally unsafe or that teach racist ideals or that train terrorists.

We don’t have to point out why the former is illogical—but, hey, might as well—though the latter deserves discussion.

It is a myth that private schools aren’t safe for parents to choose because they are unregulated. Private schools do not operate under a cloak of invisibility. Not only do parents, communities, school ranking organizations, and the media all act as watchdogs for private schools, but our state governments do, too. Private schools are absolutely regulated, and school choice programs are proven to come with their own sets of transparency requirements as well (some more onerous than others). In fact, many of them are readily available in our 2014 report, which measures and categorizes states’ private school regulations before and after choice programs.

That said, it is true private schools are not regulated in the same way public schools are, but we wouldn’t say that is a bad thing. If public school teachers and leaders could draft an ideal culture in which to do their jobs, we venture to guess their environment wouldn’t look so different from the freedoms many private schools enjoy. Private schools are free to choose their own testing culture, their own curriculum, their own teacher evaluation strategies…the list goes on. And there are probably aspects in every sector that could contribute to a more ideal learning and teaching environment in every type of school.

We believe collaboration between, not the polarization of, sectors is essential for improving education in the U.S. And recent surveys of Americans show a desire for change. It’s time education advocates stop distrusting each other’s intentions and morals and start sharing and testing strategies that work for kids.