Friday Freakout: The Straussification of Public Education

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss recently published an opinion piece, “The ‘Walmartization’ of public education,” in which she derides the Friedman Foundation for our work to empower families to choose the best educational setting for their children.

Strauss’s arguments are ones we hear repeatedly from those who would prefer a one-size-fits-most, system-centered approach to K–12 education. In a section entitled “The Friedman Effect,” she goes so far as to frame school choice as some insidious plot concocted in a smoke-filled back room with the sole purpose of busting unions and closing down neighborhood schools.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our mission at the Friedman Foundation is simple: We believe in empowering all parents to choose the right educational setting for their children, whether that’s in private schools, charter schools, home schools, and—yes—even public schools.

Not only do we know giving families more access to options lifts students up, but also we know parents who might otherwise be limited by ZIP Code or income are up for the challenge of choosing the best path for their kids.

According to the 2015 Schooling in America Survey, only 36 percent of Americans would choose a regular public school if they were empowered to make that choice; the rest would prefer to choose either a private school, charter school, or homeschooling. Yet, 84 percent of American students are currently enrolled in a regular public school. The reality of the American K–12 system clearly is not commensurate with the demand for educational choice.

So it would seem that the “Friedman Effect” that Strauss incorrectly identified is actually more than 1 million students utilizing 60 school choice programs operating in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

As Strauss demonstrates, it’s easy to demonize a company or a last name or a theory. It is far more challenging to confront the hundreds of thousands of families who are ecstatically using these programs and explain to them why they shouldn’t have the right to guide their own children’s education.

When we talk about K–12 education in America, there are those who talk about protecting the system and tradition, and there are those who talk about empowering the people receiving educational services and developing ways to best provide those services to them.

We no longer have to make phone calls by picking up a wired handset in our kitchen and asking an operator on the line to connect us to a neighbor. In the same spirit, it makes no sense that American families should have to rely on a single school assigned to them by ZIP Code that may or may not be the best fit for their children’s learning needs.

To some, that might seem disruptive, but let us be clear. Any disruption to the traditional public school system is a consequence of empowered families and their choices. If a public school loses enrollment money because 200 students have the power to leave, that sends a signal. Not a signal that those students’ choices should be rescinded, but that the school ought to reevaluate if it wants those students to choose to come back.

For the past 20 years, we have proudly focused on expanding educational access for parents and students, and our mission heading into the next two decades is clearer than ever before.