The argument for the kind of programs that we call “school choice programs” can and should be made on two levels: principle and policy. In the principle realm, the debate centers around the freedom to choose between scholastic options regardless of income, and between possible violations of the separation of church and state. On the policy side of school choice, there’s one simple question with a complicated answer: do school choice programs improve the quality of schools?
Before I start providing my evidence-based and heavily pondered perspective, it’s important that we gain some understanding of what school choice actually means. Right now, we don’t require K-12 students to go to a particular school. The only requirement is that, assuming students attend a public school, they must attend the school in their particular district or sub-district. Other than that, families can pick where they want to educate their child, as long as that school meets certain state-mandated requirements. Private schools, charter schools, public schools, church schools, and homeschooling are all technically options. I use the word “technically” because for many families, tight finances make public schools the only viable option. So, “school choice” refers to programs that make it more affordable for families to opt out of the public school in their district. To be perfectly accurate, we should use the term “financial facilitation of school choice,” but that’s an awful hashtag and an even worse rallying cry.
Under this mantle of facilitation, there are a few ways to go about it. The flagship proposal of school choice policies is called a voucher program, where every child gets a “token” that’s redeemable for schooling. In essence, vouchers are like food stamps for education. Other programs, like Educational Savings Accounts and scholarship tax credit programs, are nominally different, but they aim at the same goal. All of these programs dedicate public money to give families broader educational options. For a deeper breakdown of these policies, a Brookings Institute article details some of the differences across the 25 states that have one or more school choice programs. For our purposes, it’s easier for us to talk about school choice from a macro perspective.
That macro perspective requires some context, and to gain that, we need to talk about some issues with American public schools. First, public K-12 institutions are funded primarily through property taxes, which creates a dramatic difference in the level of resources available to public schools. Schools in affluent neighborhoods with high property taxes have plenty of funding, while schools in poor neighborhoods have far fewer resources at their disposal. A 2016 article in The Atlantic points out this difference, using Connecticut towns as an example. They write that “Greenwich spends $6,000 more per pupil per year than Bridgeport does, according to the State Department of Education.” That $6,000 can go a long way. According to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, a “10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.” In other words, the zip code you grow up in has a huge effect on the zip code you can afford as an adult. Second, there are sometimes ideological differences between families and schools. A family might object to school prayer or the teaching of evolutionary biology. Third, a student might simply learn better in a non-public school. I, for one, was homeschooled growing up, and I benefited tremendously from the flexibility and one-on-one attention that my education provided.
All of these reasons for opting out bring us to the principle argument that I promised, that principle being “no taxation without representation,” but in the school system edition. If you hypothetically choose to opt out of the public school system and have your hypothetical child privately schooled, you still have to pay property taxes, even though those taxes fund a system you don’t use. Granted, having a strong public education system provides some benefits through osmosis — lower crime, higher GDP, etc. — but those tangential benefits don’t really compensate for the fact that you’re funding two educations: one that your hypothetical child is actually getting, and one which he is not. The families that can’t afford two educations per child are stuck with the poor quality, ideologically opposite, or ill-fitting education that the local public school provides.
Opponents of school choice argue that using public funding for private education, especially religious education, violates the separation of church and state. They claim, in essence, that funding a Catholic school would be akin to giving state sanction to Christianity. First, that’s nonsense, and second, that’s not what SCOTUS ruled. In Trinity v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled that withholding public funds from otherwise secular programs run by religious institutions violates the First Amendment. In this case, Trinity Lutheran Church wanted to access public funds that Missouri allotted for the resurfacing of playgrounds, since the church ran a small Christian school on its campus. Missouri originally declined to fund the project on account of the church’s religious beliefs, which SCOTUS decided was active discrimination on account of religion. This decision made it clear that school choice programs are constitutional, even when religious schools enter the picture.
Finally, we come to the complicated answer to a simple question: do school choice programs work? The efficacy of school voucher programs depends on a legion of factors, and it’s incredibly easy for skewed results that stem from the specifics of each program. In 2015, The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a meta-study which said:
Specifically, the empirical research on small scale programs does not suggest that awarding students a voucher is a systematically reliable way to improve educational outcomes. Nevertheless, in some settings, or for some subgroups or outcomes, vouchers can have a substantial positive effect on those who use them. Studies of large scale voucher programs find student sorting as a result of their implementation, although of varying magnitude. Evidence on both small scale and large scale programs suggests that competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve.
For example, Milwaukee’s city-wide voucher program is an abysmal failure, as is Louisiana’s statewide voucher program. But Florida’s charter schools, which receive public money as part of a complex school choice program, are thriving, after a slow start. Florida’s public schools have also improved, as competition has forced them to fight for their funding. Ultimately, we have to understand that school choice programs have incredible potential in both directions. They can be marvelous successes, or shoddily-implemented nightmares, and a program that works
in one state may be wholly inadequate for another. But we do know that competition drives excellence, that school choice provides educational freedom, and that the mere specter of additional educational options motivates public schools to step up their game.