National School Choice Week is the largest annual series of education-related events in the US. In 2024, the School Choice Week will take place January 21–27.
Market economy and school choice improve academic outcomes, so why don’t we learn from science?
I did not understand a word of what a young woman said in her testimony before the Maryland General Assembly’s Education, Business and Administration Subcommittee – but her message never left me.
The woman – named ‘Miss Rivera’, a fact I learned by rewatching the hearing footage – delivered her testimony to a group of state legislators in Spanish. She was a single parent of three who afforded private education exclusively through Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, the state-administered fund for low-income students, enabling them to make educational choices.
The committee chair labeled Miss Rivera as ‘brave’ for speaking at the hearing, then dismissed her to her seat. It was clear that the legislators were rattled by their naivety.
Miss Rivera will never know of me, but I will never forget her and others who spoke at the hearing. The hearing included testimonies from administrators of the Maryland School for the Blind, representatives of the Jewish community, a counselor from an Al-Huda school, and a mother from Baltimore whose son was accepted into every college he applied – because of the BOOST programme.
They were not the typical middle-class school choice advocates we know from the media. They represented the disadvantaged families – whom the state claims to serve – when the Maryland legislature had just cut $1 million from BOOST’s already modest budget of $9 million annually.
I was at the statehouse that day with a youth advocacy group. I stumbled into the hearing only to kill time before our next office visit. I never imagined this would reveal the greatest cause our generation can fight for: a right to choose the school we want to attend.
School choice policies improve academic outcomes, accommodate the needs of underserved students, and raise standards of competition across the entire K-12 system.
Academic variation driven by wealth and access inequalities shapes the present of today’s students.
The income gap between lower and upper-class families is one of the greatest predictors of academic outcomes with the difference in family income corresponding to a 30-60% larger disparity in school achievement compared to the 1970s.
Upper-class families enjoy the luxury of well-staffed, well-resourced schools in affluent neighborhoods. As the state criminalizes attempts to bypass districting for a chance at a better education, residents in under-resourced neighborhoods have no means of changing their ZIP codes. School choice would allow families to seek better schools for their children.
Studies show that non-public schools improve the rate of learning for students and increase achievement.
One study examining the effects of charter schools on academics found that after four or more years in a charter school, students gained the equivalent of 108 days of math and 72 days of reading – for Black and Hispanic students of economically deprived backgrounds, the gain was 107 days of math and 92 days of reading.
Nearly two decades of data in metropolitan areas show that economically deprived Black and Hispanic students experience the most significant jumps in academic improvement due to the programs allowing them to choose schools. These improvements are, in part, what disadvantaged communities need to close achievement and future wealth gaps.
Do school vouchers ‘work’? As the debate heats up, here’s what research really says
Although some opponents argue against academic data supporting school choice, most evaluations showing negative effects are conducted over short periods immediately after voucher programs were introduced, thus ignoring the gradual benefits seen for students with multiple years in the non-traditional education system.
Improved academic performance can be attributed to the specialization and unique culture that non-traditional schools provide. Why should parents be forced to send their kids to schools that cannot accommodate the needs of their children? School choice programs signal that parents can choose what is right for their children without the influence of the state in making educational decisions
Private schools make up for their public competition’s shortcomings, from teacher-to-student ratios and special education and disability accommodations to contemporary teaching methods.
It is not impossible to accommodate students whose educational needs require greater specialization – governments simply choose not to.
Furthermore, non-public schools are susceptible to market pressures such that they improve teaching methods and academic results – otherwise, they risk losses in enrollment. Public schools will continue to accrue funding regardless of their performance.
The environment and culture of an institution shape the trajectory of its students – and private schools consistently perform higher in safety and prevention of risky behaviors. This is especially important for students whose community and learning environment are interrupted by crime and violence.
It has been reported how school choice has a positive effect towards crime reduction, one study found an astounding 100% decrease in the likelihood of incarceration after students won attendance at NYC charter school through a random lottery system. The same study found a 59% decrease in teen pregnancy.
Choice programs have decreased the severity in serious mental health crises and suicide. It isn’t rocket science: the less likely teens are to endure life-altering traumas, the more energy they can focus on school.
When a student’s school supports their academic and social needs, maintaining academic rigor and building a strong college application is easier. This correlation is seen in programs nationwide, such as New York’s voucher system, which resulted in a college enrollment rate increase of 24% for Black Americans, accounting for factors including student neighborhood, income, parental education and demographics.
“What about public schools?” – This argument is presented by school choice critics after examining the benefits of school choice programmes. They admit that students who have access to voucher programs thrive but ask what is being done for those left behind?
Skeptics should examine the large body of research suggesting public schools respond to the economic pressure of private competition by improving. Systematic reviews have found test scores and school performance rise in public schools with the expansion of school choice.
Think about it: certain universities draw better applicants because they offer incentives to attend – aspects like finances, academics, and athletics.
Yes, the underperforming schools, or those that students do not select, would close – effectively, the K-12 system would adopt these same market pressures to produce better educational experiences.
Instead, we let failing schools sit idle and consume taxpayer funds without any meaningful effort to improve. When choice programs raise the bar for schools both in the public and private sectors, it is ignorant to denounce school choice as a viable policy option.
School choice programs do not diminish public school resources as it has been stated that ‘public schools get to keep almost all of the federal and local tax dollars and usually a portion of the state funds allocated for each child’.
Private institutions are only fighting for revenue among themselves; a significant piece of the state budget will always be reserved for public schools.
Scaling down current voucher programs will result in a burden being placed on public institutions.
With most school choice programs having income or eligibility requirements, the vast majority of students come from public schools before participation. Forcing these students back into the public ecosystem will overwhelm students and teachers.
Lowering the population in public schools can allow for more concentrated teaching, relief of staffing shortages, and a lower spread of attention and resources. In other words, all parties will reap the benefits of choice.
The school choice debate reflects a greater erosion of individual choice as a tenant of free society. We sometimes forget that governments are instituted to serve the people, not its own failing institutions.
For the future of young people, for parents like Miss Rivera, and for children who will endure the shortcomings of a flawed educational system, we must take up school choice as a cause worth fighting for.