Challenging three common critiques of school choice

Like it or not, 2020 has been a massive real-time experiment in school choice. Schools closed, home schooling was the default option for months, and families turned to a raft of alternative arrangements when it became clear that most schools wouldn’t reopen in any conventional sense of the word. As schools have allowed students back on campus, parents have had to choose whether to send their children back in person. Where school buildings remained closed, parents had to choose whether to rely on district-provided remote learning or turn to in-person or remote alternatives.

Yet, ubiquity hasn’t made the choice debates any less hyperbolic. After Secretary of Education Betsy Devos announced this spring that a small portion of the $13.5 billion in federal education relief could be used to support private schools, Sen. Chuck Schumer accused her of using CARES Act funding “not to help states or localities cope with the crisis, but to augment her push for voucher-like programs, a prior initiative that has nothing to do with Covid-19.” AFT President Randi Weingarten encouraged school districts to ignore the department’s guidance entirely.

As families and educators navigate the practical realities of the moment, plenty of policymakers and pundits are engaging in public posturing about choice that is frequently at odds with the facts. This all yields a public discourse that is often unhelpful and sometimes downright misleading. This is why I was glad to see Corey DeAngelis and Neal McCluskey’s new volume, School Choice Myths: Setting the Record Straight on Education Freedom. While DeAngelis and McCluskey will be the first to acknowledge they come at the issue with a pro-choice bent, they’ve done a service in challenging some of the familiar but suspect assertions that pepper public debates about school choice. The book assesses a raft of critiques, but here are three contributions that I found especially timely.

Public schools have an obvious advantage when it comes to creating good citizens and promoting democratic virtues. Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, takes on this popular notion. He surveys the research on how private schools and traditional public schools fare on this score and reports that, if anything, the research suggests that private schools do a better job preparing citizens. Of 86 findings regarding private and public school effects on political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge or skills, and voluntarism or social capital, Wolf reports that 50 point to a private school advantage, 33 no statistically significant difference, and just 3 a public school advantage.

Choice programs siphon money from public schools. Marty Lueken of EdChoice and Ben Scafidi of Kennesaw State University bristle at this assertion, noting that most choice programs leave more per-pupil funding for students who remain in district schools (since only a portion of per-pupil funds follow departing students). As they put it, “Public K-12 education is the only enterprise in our society (that we are aware of) that retains significant amounts of funding for customers it no longer serves.”

Voucher programs mostly help wealthy families because the amounts are too small to cover tuition costs for low-income families. Albert Cheng, professor at the University of Arkansas, notes that three-fourths of school choice programs are targeted toward assisting low-income families or children with special needs. He also notes that most parents who opt not to take advantage of choice programs don’t mention the size of the subsidy as a reason. Cheng also points out that residential assignment means that affluent families tend to have already selected their school when they buy a home, meaning that school choice programs will typically have outsized benefits for low-incomes families that haven’t had that opportunity.

In the midst of a pandemic that has turned millions of kitchen tables into makeshift classrooms and made school choice a prosaic reality in communities across the land, there’s a need for practical, plain-spoken assessments of how to make choice work for students and families seeking options. That makes this volume a particularly timely contribution.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.

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