This week Forbes published a piece by John Tamny that, in two sweeping pages, casts doubt on the ability of market forces to improve public schools, the intentions of school choice supporters, and the values of poor families. The title? “Let’s Stop Blaming Bad Teachers, And Start Blaming Bad Parents.”
Sadly, Tamny isn’t the only person this week to claim school choice kids are “wrecking” it for those whose parents paid their way into the district the old-fashioned way.
This piece is truly unlike any we’ve ever read, so we felt all but obliged to offer up an opinion—one based on evidence.
The Intentions and Effects of School Choice
After touching on a family anecdote that highlights exactly why families should have access to school choice, Tamny correctly explains how proponents of school choice believe competition will improve public schools for all. But he goes on to say, “It’s hard to argue with the above belief at first glance, but…the voucher argument in a very real sense absolves parents and students of any blame for their failings in the classroom.”
Luckily, we are school voucher proponents, and thus, can clear up any false inferences about why we think families need school choice options. It is not because they are all “victims of bad teachers”—far from it.
Studies can and do tell us why many parents choose the schools they do. Parents say they switch schools for better academic offerings, for a safer environment, for more one-on-one instruction, and, yes, sometimes for access to better teachers. But the truth is, no one knows why every single family needs school choice, and that’s the point. Those families know their needs better than anyone, and school choice empowers them to express their needs to the education marketplace with real purchasing power.
We also were surprised to see how easily Tamny, as a political economy editor at Forbes and editor of RealClearMarkets, brushed aside the ability of school choice programs to improve public schools.
Remember, school choice originated in the mind of free-market economist and Nobel prize-winner Milton Friedman. Since its inception, neutral researchers and pro- and anti-school choice groups alike have conducted 23 empirical studies to examine the competitive effects of actual choice programs on the academic outcomes of students in public schools. Not one study shows harm, and 22 show school choice had a positive effect by improving public school students’ performance.
Many other random assignment studies show voucher student outcomes improve as well, but that’s not to say a school choice system would be a “magic bullet.” Dr. Friedman advocated for decades that a system of school choice actually would not be a panacea. Check out this video from the 70s of him speaking directly to the concern Tamny still raises all these years later.
The Values of School Voucher Families
Is our organization shocked that someone questioned the ability of school choice to follow through on proponents’ promises? Hardly! It’s an argument with which we’re very familiar. What makes Tamny’s article truly freakout-worthy is how he draws the line between “good parents” and “bad parents.”
Throughout the piece, he repeatedly asserts that parents who can’t or won’t go deeply into debt for what’s meant to be their children’s free education “don’t care.” But what’s missing throughout is an explanation of how he knows that’s the case.
In his own words:
“More than some might want to admit, with the ‘best schools’ we’re not always talking about the best teachers as much as we’re talking about parents who care about education, and who by extension require their children to show up at school each day ready to work.”
“Along those lines, logic dictates that Kershaw [a student whose mother borrowed from family and friends to live in his school’s district] wasn’t allowed to slack off too much while in class. This seems a reasonable speculation simply because he had a mother going heavily into debt so that he could attend the schools he did. What this tells us is that Kershaw arrived in the classroom each day with the expectation that he would work and be rather attentive.”
“Vouchers won’t change this reality, and at worst will make the students who don’t care more mobile in their ability to wreck the educational outcomes of those who do.”
Tamny couldn’t have made his opinion any clearer.
Unfortunately, he is operating under a few assumptions. One is that it takes the financial hardship of a parent for a child to value their education.
By that same logic, couldn’t one also assume that all children of wealthy parents will be lackadaisical about their own kids’ education, making those students feel less consequence for skipping class, being a distraction to others, and getting poor grades? Shouldn’t schools that are high-income homogenized be full of students who slack off?
The answer is, of course, no. The value parents and children assign to education is not conditional upon their access to money.
Another assumption Tamny makes is rooted more in the lack of understanding of how school vouchers are implemented. He assumes droves of families who “don’t care” about education are being handed slips of paper and set loose on all the “good schools.” This paints a false reality.
A parent must take many, often inconvenient, steps before finally obtaining a school voucher. Surveys of parents who are using school choice programs in real life show they are researching, touring, interviewing, ensuring transportation, filling out applications, and obtaining acceptance at their schools of choice before ever even applying for their vouchers. And, yes, even families in poverty with no access to credit or loans from family and friends are willingly and happily taking these steps.
Knowing that, does it make sense to say such a parent doesn’t value education? Seeing all of their parents’ investment, does it follow that a child of such a family wouldn’t ensure they show up at school each day ready to work?
If anything, we believe the empowerment families feel from being given school choice opportunities only further invigorates their passion for education, and kids like Joel are proving us right every day.
Good schools should be proud to open their doors to school choice families. If they do, the only thing those students are likely to wreck are negative preconceptions.