The Roots of Educational Freedom

This is the second in a larger blog series about liberating education through educational freedom.

There is a strange notion going around that school choice advocates are on the retreat or at the very least have pivoted from long-held reasons for supporting choice. Those promoting this theory are mistakenly focused on just one small piece of a much larger picture.

It’s true that for the better part of three decades, many of those in favor of school choice asserted that choice and competition in education would improve educational outcomes. In 1990, John Chubb and Terry Moe famously argued that school choice “is a panacea.”

Thus far, many of those claims have failed to ring true. After a spate of evaluations showing modest, positive outcomes for private school voucher programs, several recent studies have found school vouchers led to decreases in student achievement. Ulrich Boser, Meg Benner and Erin Roth of the Center for American Progress (CAP) suggested the studies “have put some advocates in a bind.” They claim that “voucher proponents have backtracked or tried to spin the findings.”

The folks at CAP and elsewhere have made the fatal mistake of thinking school choice must be directly tied to increased test scores for all students, all the time, to be worthwhile. That’s simply not the case. The primary argument for school choice has never been that it will increase test scores, although it could (and has in many cases). School choice has always been about educational freedom, and the roots of educational freedom run deep.

Don’t get me wrong: Ever since Milton Friedman promoted the modern school voucher idea in 1955, supporters of school choice have championed the idea that choice and competition would lead to an increase in school quality. But at the time Friedman was writing, test scores were not the primary arbiter of school quality. Our societal obsession with test-based accountability didn’t take hold until decades later. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and read Friedman’s seminal work on school vouchers, “The Role of Government in Education.” He does not mention test scores once.

Rather, Friedman argued that an educational system that allowed parents to choose would “bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available.” On that, he has been absolutely correct.

Families historically have had three K–12 educational options: the local public school, paying for private school or moving to access what they believe is a better public school. School choice has provided additional avenues for parents to seek out other educational opportunities. Charter schools, private school scholarship programs, or education savings accounts have opened schoolhouse doors that previously were closed. These aren’t just doors to different schools: They are pathways to different instructional philosophies, including Montessori schools, classical academies, Afrocentric centers and so many more. These schools thrive in an educational marketplace, and the educational marketplace is thriving because more families are able to access options that previously were out of reach.

The focus on test scores has been a relatively modern event that coincided with our nation’s widespread adoption of standardized testing and school accountability. Like every other major reform of the past 40 years, including preschool programs and class size reduction, school choice latched on to a handful of dominant narratives—some of our schools are failing, the United States is losing its competitive edge and we must do something about it. Test scores were an expedient mechanism to quantify these narratives, but they were never intended to be the only measurement of success.

It’s possible that school choice supporters were overzealous in using test scores to make their case for charters, vouchers or other programs. But the truth is test scores were never the sole arbiter of the value of school choice, and critics know this. On one hand, they will deride standardized tests, but on the other they’ll use scores to dismiss school choice programs altogether. Maybe Kevin Chavous was right when he said, “We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing.”

Our understanding of the worth and uses of test scores may be changing. This does not change the fundamental argument for school choice—empowering families with the freedom they deserve to find the educational fit that works for their children.

There is no retreat. There is no pivot. Advocates of school choice are not in a bind. Students who use a school choice program may, in some cases, realize significant test score gains. Others may experience declines in test scores. That’s the natural ebb and flow of research. On the whole, though, the market will move forward—and those engaging in the marketplace will have more opportunity to find what they are looking for. When people are free to choose a school that meets their needs, we’re getting back to the actual roots of the school choice movement.

Other Posts in This Series

Liberating Education

The Object of Our Taxation