By Rose Laoutaris
The issue of school choice has been debated for decades between parents, teachers, and politicians. While the idea is not necessarily new, the concept of school choice became popular after Milton Friedman published his book, “The Role of Government in Education,” and in response to the increasing control state and federal government had and continues to have over education. Because school choice is rooted in free market principles, it is typically favored by conservatives. However, there is new data which shows that school choice has become favorable among liberal voters as well.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the nation switched to a virtual format in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, while some schools in states like Florida began to re-opening in the fall of 2020, there are many schools that have yet to open for fully in-person instruction or were very late to do so. This was despite much evidence that schools are not super-spreaders and that only 0.0-0.23% of those who died from COVID-19 were children.
Virtual learning had and continues to have many negative effects on students academically, mentally, and socially. Many students were trapped in public schools that refused to open and meet their needs. Amid growing frustration, school choice has become a favored alternative approach to traditional education options and is supported by both Republicans and Democrats.
What is school choice?
School choice, while implemented differently in each state, essentially allows students use their public education funds to attend whichever school they want. This includes public school, private school, charter school, homeschooling, and any other type of schooling. To accomplish this, parents may be given vouchers to pay for part or all of their child’s tuition at whichever school they choose to send them to. It can also be implemented through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which provide each student with a savings account parents can use to allocate money toward different school options. This can include combinations of public and private services like tutoring.
Arguments surrounding school choice
Proponents of school choice argue that it is the most effective way to provide quality education because it allows parents to choose the best school for their kids. They believe that a zip code should not determine where a child goes to school and that if they do not like their school, they should be able to leave and attend a different one.
Supporters also believe that school choice would be especially beneficial to minority students because it gives them an opportunity to leave the school they were assigned in their district for a better one, which may explain the data from the California poll.
Opponents of school choice argue that it takes funding away from public schools. The National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in America, says that “[t]hey take scarce funding from public schools—which serve 90 percent of students—and give it to private schools—institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers.”
However, this does not address the problem at hand; many public schools are not meeting the needs of students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students should not have to suffer in order to keep failing schools open.
Furthermore, the teachers’ union’s claim is false. School choice has actually saved taxpayer money and improved performance of public school students in cities and states with school choice programs. Milwaukee and Florida are examples.
This is because school choice provides incentive for all schools to improve. Public schools in states with no school choice options have little incentive to improve or spend their money efficiently. When students are allowed to attend other schools, all schools must compete for enrollment, which will force them to improve.
Popularity of school choice
According to a RealClearOpinion poll, 71% of voters across the nation support school choice, including 69% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans, despite it typically being considered a “conservative” issue.
The poll also asked about how the efforts of teachers’ unions to keep public schools closed changed their views on them. 47% responded that this made them view teachers’ unions less favorably, while only 36% viewed them more favorably. Because teachers’ unions represent some of the strongest opponents of school choice, these numbers are important to consider.
Even in California, a blue state, 54% of voters said they would support an ESA ballot initiative this fall according to a California Policy Center poll. It has even more support from black and Hispanic voters with 71% and 66% favoring ESAs, respectively, which completely goes against the claim made by teachers’ unions that school choice is rooted in racism.
School choice during the COVID-19 pandemic
In the case of school closures due to COVID-19, there is no strong incentive for public schools to reopen, especially in states without school choice programs, because students do not have the option to attend any other school. On the other hand, private schools, which have an incentive to re-open since parents pay for their students to attend, have been re-opening at much higher rates.
This negates the NEA’s claim discussed earlier that private institutions are not accountable to taxpayers. All schools must provide quality education to students in order to stay open, which actually creates greater accountability since the competition between them creates greater incentive to meet their needs.
It is no surprise that support for school choice is currently at an all-time high. It was already a popular policy before the pandemic, but the unnecessary prolonged public school closures exacerbated the already existing issues in states where parents are not given options for their child’s education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted public school failings and shown parents that education reform is needed now more than ever. With positive public opinion of school choice increasing among both Republicans and Democrats, this is the perfect opportunity for states to pass legislation creating school choice programs.