School choice movement gains momentum amid pandemic discontent

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

School choice, a movement seeking to give parents alternatives to public schools for their children, has made major gains across the United States amid widespread frustration with how schools have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year alone, seven states established new school choice programs, and 15 expanded their existing programs, according to the advocacy group EdChoice. Several more states may soon follow. School choice takes a variety of forms, but it broadly refers to any system that allows parents to take tax dollars designated for the public education of their child and spend the funds on some other form of schooling.

The most well-known form of school choice is vouchers, which are direct payments sent to families to cover tuition at a private school or other nonpublic alternative. Other systems provide the money to parents through tax credits or deposits in what are known as Education Savings Accounts. There were roughly 600,000 students in the U.S. taking part in school choice programs in the 2020-21 school year, according to EdChoice. One recent analysis found that new laws passed last year could mean an additional 1.6 million students participating in school choice nationwide. Even with its remarkable expansion, school choice still represents a small sliver of the country’s K-12 education system — which includes an estimated 50 million students attending public schools.

While both Democrats and Republicans have promoted alternatives to traditional public schooling, school choice has become increasingly partisan in recent years. Former President Donald Trump called school choice “the civil rights statement of the year,” and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a strong proponent. Last year’s expansion of school choice happened almost exclusively in Republican-controlled areas of the country.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for school choice say that children should not have the quality of their schooling determined by their ZIP code. They argue that redirecting money from failing public schools will allow disadvantaged children to access a high-quality education that is currently available to only the rich — a change they say will disproportionately benefit students of color. “Funding students, not systems” is a common slogan used by proponents of school choice.

Others make an ethical-focused case, based on the principle that parents, not government bureaucrats, should decide what form of education works best for their kids. Some add that freeing families to choose their own educational models could help calm some of the intense fights over COVID rules and curriculum content that result from forcing people with disparate views to share a single school model.

Critics argue that school choice, at its core, is just a thinly veiled attack on the very institution of public education. They argue that siphoning money from already cash-strapped public schools represents “an existential threat” to the country’s ability to provide free education to every child. Increasing investment in public schools, they say, is the only true solution to educational inequities.

Others argue that rather than reducing segregation, school choice models make it more pronounced by empowering white students to abandon public schools. There are also deep concerns about having more students attend schools that exist outside the realm of government oversight. An investigation of private schools in Florida, for example, found that the state pumped nearly $1 billion into a private school system that was “so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records.” Other reports have tracked government funds going to schools that aggressively discriminate against LGBTQ students.

What’s next

The legal framework around school policies could be due for a major shift in the near future. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case centering on the question of whether states are obligated to include religious schools — including ones with openly discriminatory views — in their voucher programs. A ruling in that case is expected this summer.

Perspectives

Supporters

School choice allows kids to escape broken schools that will stifle their potential

“The benefit will flow to thousands of students and families looking to escape the prison of low-performing public schools.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Children should not be condemned to a poor education based on where they live

“Moving to a nearby school district is rarely an option considering the average home price in neighboring, better-performing suburban districts. Economically disadvantaged parents and guardians are then subject to de facto education ‘redlining,’ with the quality of a child’s school determined by his or her ZIP code. Families that want a different or better option but cannot afford one are out of luck.” — Paul Vallas, Chicago Tribune

Every family deserves the chance to seek out the education that fits them best

“Educators know that every child learns differently and not every learning environment is best suited for every student. In order to best serve students, we need to ensure that they have the ability to access an education that will help them reach their full potential.” — Noelani Kahapea, Washington Examiner

School choice can help calm the intense fights that are tearing apart the U.S. school system

“At a time when so many trends in American life have been bleak, this embrace of school choice is something to cheer. The more liberty parents have to choose how, where, and what their children learn, the more tolerant and peaceful America’s educational landscape will become.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

Throwing money at low-performing schools is not the solution

“Unlike investing more in the same underperforming public schools — which research shows does not correlate with improved student outcomes — school choice programs have improved student academic outcomes, empowering students to choose an education provider that works best for them.” — Cooper Conway, Orange County Register

School choice gives all students opportunities that are currently available to only the rich

“The greatest contributing factor to segregation today is that kids without choice are trapped in schools based on a zip code. … We need school choice for everyone, not just rich people.” — Reason editor Billy Binion

Critics

It’s dangerous to entrust unaccountable private schools with educating our children

“Our leaders hand public money to parents who hand it to private and parochial schools. … There is no real accountability for how the money is spent, not even a requirement that kids actually learn something.” — Laurie Roberts, Arizona Republic

School choice makes inequality in education even more severe

“Vouchers defund public schools. No matter how this reality is distorted or packaged, funding for schools is tied to enrollment. If students leave, funding decreases. Private schools exacerbate racial segregation — namely through white students leaving diverse public schools.” — T. Jameson Brewer, Atlanta Journal Constitution

The goal of many school choice advocates is eliminating the public school system entirely

“The end game is really to have an education system that the public doesn’t pay for. … It will be a stratified system, where wealthy kids receive the absolute best education; kids in the middle will probably receive a decent education; and kids that are poor and disadvantaged will sit in a big room in front of computers with someone standing at the door keeping them in.”⁠ — Carol Corbett Burris, public education advocate, to New Republic

The public deserves to have a say over what kind of education its tax dollars are funding

“Often, [parents] look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars. Communities lose the ability to determine what content schools should teach, which skills are necessary for our workforce, and the best ways to develop active citizens” — Sarah M. Stitzlein, Washington Post

Fixing education requires investing in public schools, not diverting funding from them

“If we truly want to ensure equitable education, [struggling] schools should be targeted for true reform, meaning investments in faculty development, leadership development, social and emotional learning, wraparound services, and other supports that would strengthen those schools and make them safe, welcoming, high-quality learning environments.” — Raymond Pierce, Forbes

Parents can influence their children’s education within the public school system

“Parents already have ‘choice’ about their public schools: They elect their local school board officials and have opportunities to speak out through a myriad of civic and advocacy organizations. … They can educate themselves about how our schools are funded and seek change through their elected representatives.” — Susan Burk and Denise Murden, Virginian-Pilot

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