School Choice Is The Answer

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

Lately, I have had a number of people say to me, “School choice is not the answer.” For those that make this claim, I’m really not sure what question they are asking.

Opponents of school choice like to claim that choice just puts a Band-Aid on a problem or that it simply misdirects resources from struggling public schools. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how school choice works and the implications it has for the education system. Below, I highlight several questions and I show that school choice is the only answer to the most vexing problems in education. At least it is the only answer that solves issues without government compulsion and unintended negative consequences as a result of government action.

How do we get schools to have high learning standards for students without relying heavily on standardized tests? School Choice.

Most people agree that schools should be held accountable. That is, we established public schools to educate students; therefore, schools should educate students. Our current method of ensuring that schools have rigorous standards and that students are learning is through test based accountability. We set learning standards, mandate standardized tests, and impose penalties or sanctions for schools that fail to achieve.

There are concerns that this model has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and an overreliance on standardized tests. The strongest complaints against this system come from educators themselves.

School choice changes the dynamic. Rather than being accountable to perform on standardized tests, schools in a choice system are expected to meet the needs of their students and parents. Enabling parents with the power to choose empowers them to be the direct enforcers of accountability. If a school is not educating students, parents can choose to send their children somewhere else. Choice is accountability.

How do we improve the quality/respect of teachers in the classroom? School Choice.

Currently, the education system treats teachers like widgets with no respect for performance. In most schools, great teachers have no ability to be rewarded for their efforts. They are paid almost exclusively based on years of experience and their credentials. More importantly, there is little competition for a teacher’s labor. It is rare for schools to actively recruit excellent teachers from other schools and offer financial incentives for them to move. This is the exact opposite of nearly every other sector, including the professions with which teachers aspire to be considered.

When schools are held accountable to parents through school choice, they have an incentive to seek and reward excellent teachers. The end effect is that choice breaks up the monopsony of the public school system and creates a market for talented teachers.

Demand for good teachers is how you improve the quality and respect for professional educators. We have tried and have been unsuccessful in achieving as much through stringent licensing requirements, pensions, and a host of other measures.

How do we overcome problems of poverty in urban school districts? School Choice.

Throughout the country schools in urban settings are struggling. Many are considered drop out factories, where half of the students fail to graduate. Stalwarts of the traditional public education system like to say, “Teachers and schools aren’t the problem, poverty is the problem.”  They are right.

Poverty and all that it entails is the single biggest obstacle to students achieving excellence in education. Poverty is a problem everywhere, even in rural schools, but it is particularly pronounced when schools have a high-concentration of poverty. In many urban schools, nearly 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches – a common metric of poverty status.

School choice does not lift people out of poverty, but it does help ameliorate the effects.

First, it is important to recognize that schools with high concentrations of poverty are the product of residential zoning of traditional public schools. When we create artificial barriers around school districts, we lock housing values to the quality of schools. Over time, this results in wealthier families sorting into better school districts and pricing out the poor families. In many ways, good public schools are a lot like my private neighborhood swimming pool – you can get in if you can afford a house in the neighborhood.

Choice also gives low-income families the ability to advocate for their children – something many parents lack – and it gives schools the incentive to improve. If poverty is the problem, the answer is more choice, not less.

I could go on.

School choice is not a magical fix. It will not result in miraculous improvements tomorrow, but Chubb and Moe were right when they wrote:

…choice is not like the other reforms and should not be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy for improving America’s public schools. Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in a myriad of other ways.

If you are asking the right question, school choice is most definitely the answer.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

9 Responses to School Choice Is The Answer

  1. I heard a very similar presentation during School Choice week here in Atlanta. When I pointed out that complaining about standardized tests while not complaining about the ultimate standardizer in education, the accreditation process, made no sense, the presenters began to misrepresent the nature of accreditation to the audience.

    As I explain in my book Credentialed to Destroy going through AdvancED’s current Quality Standards, there is no such thing as choice with accreditation imposing such nonacademic focuses. We can have school choice , but not until we acknowledge where the poison delivery functions are in the current system. Jay and I had a discussion on this point a few years ago when he spoke in Gainesville, Ga in honor of Milton Friedman.

    Moreover, as a lawyer most of the charters I read actually contractually gut academics in unappreciated ways once you are familiar with the real definitions of the terms used. A good example that was deceitfully held up as an exemplar of School Choice was Fulton County’s Conversion Charter. A charter that limits schools to using the computer, life skills, and soft skills is no model of school choice. It’s a tool for denying it while living high off a suburban/urban district’s prosperous tax base.

    Many private schools now are having their choice on what can occur in their classrooms taken away by the requirements of accreditation. Frequently the shift there can occur even quicker than in public schools. All it takes is a particularly aggressive administrator seeking to ascend to ever more lucrative promotions by pushing Radical Ed Reform.

    To actually get to school choice, it must be more than a banner that sounds good. Right now the banner is obscuring the lack of genuine choice.

    • allen says:

      Sorry Robin but even credentialing is ultimately a function of choice, of who’s making the organizational life-and-death decisions in the public education trenches.

      Right now that’s the elected school board and their hired minions, the administrative staff, with little to no input from parents.

      Those folks are just fine with the current credentialing process because, as the “customer” of that credential process they happily buy what the ed schools sell and that’s mediated by the accreditation process. To change that cozy arrangement something fundamental has to change. School choice effects that change by reversing the relationship between the school and the parent.

      The current relationship between school and parent renders the parent effectively powerless. Thus the sorts of choices a parent would make for their child are taken out of their hands. One such choice would be a preference for good teachers over indifferent or bad.

      A school board however is under no compulsion to hire good teachers. The school board works under the convenient assumption that the accreditation process is proof that the teacher are competent and that’s all the school board needs. The schools of education are then free to pursue whatever ends best suits their internal politics since the customer, the school board, is entirely satisfied with the graduates of the ed school so long as they’ve got their accreditation.

      But in a parental choice environment a school that hires teacher who are stuffed to the gills with the latest in ed school fads, resulting in kids who can’t read, write or add, is a school that has a lot of parents looking at other area schools.

      When the thrilling au courant school closes its doors due to a lack of students other school operators notice and look at their own operations. If they’ve got teachers who are fully versed in the latest educational fads it’s difficult to assume any other future but that which befell the fad-embracing school.

      New hires will, of course, come under the same scrutiny and ed school which turn teachers capable of marching into a classroom and teaching will begin to have their graduates differentiated from the ed schools whose graduates are conversant in the latest educational buzz words.

      That push-back works its way up the educational food chain until it finally gets to the accrediting organizations.

      Those accrediting organizations that demand proof that the teachers can teach will be sought out by ed schools who are dedicated to producing teachers who can teach. That’s what the schools will be demanding if parents have choice.

      • Allen,

        None of the area schools where I live has that kind of power to avoid the bad ideas be they charters, privates, public or whatever. I left that Breakfast with the feeling that School Choice had become a mantra to take away all genuine choice and honestly your long response is further confirmation.

        The School Boards have also had their powers of oversight statutorily trimmed in favor of having the accreditors threaten the district’s accreditation if school board members are exceeding the authority. That has now become limited supposedly to financial oversight and hiring and firing the Super. All other matters are to be treated as within the professional provenance of the ed administrators. Do not tell me that is not true as the representative of the State School Board Association is the one who said it in a training session for prospective school board members or legislators and lawyers good at finnagling invites to such forums.

        What a fantasy response you laid out to my facts.

      • allen says:

        I have a feeling Robin that we don’t have much to talk about. Your dismissal of school choice, which alters the basic dynamics of public education, as nothing more then a mantra strengthens that feeling.

        I don’t know how things are arranged in your state but in Michigan accreditation agencies oversee, to a fairly limited extent, schools of education not local school boards. School districts aren’t accredited by those agencies so they have no say over district policy. Perhaps the state in which you reside’s seen fit to reduce local school board authority to nothing more (?) then financial oversight and hiring/firing of the superintendent of schools but I rather doubt that’s anything but an exception. The notion that the NWCCU would have the slightest influence over a school district is worth a laugh but nothing more and were a representative of the NWCCU to show up at a school board meeting making demands they’d be shown the door.

        A big part of the reason for the existence of school districts, the maintenance of economic distinctions, is predicated on district independence and that independence has proven quite durable. State legislatures have repeatedly turned down efforts to equalize funding and even judicial over-reach has been frustrated by that statutory independence.

        Oooh, just took a look at the blurb for your book on Amazon. I’m past entertaining myself confronting conspiratorialists.

  2. Duncan Frissell says:

    I’m, of course, a big advocate of school choice but dislike Charters because of their limitations as government schools and their effects on existing private schools. They can’t teach all subjects and they’re still part of the bureaucracy and reflect its politics. They’ve harmed Catholic Schools in some areas.

  3. School is a means, not an end in itself. School choice would improve overall education system performance. Educational choice could improve overall system performance more.

    The school accreditation issue matters. Accreditation agencies succumb to regulatory capture. Current accreditation processes protect established players in the education industry.

    Governments cannot subsidize attendance at school without a definition of “school”. Accreditation agencies supply the official definition of “school”. I expect that sausage-making would look wholesome compared to the politics involved with accreditation agencies. Governments cannot subsidize education without a definition of “education”. Currently, the definition of “school” substitutes (erroneously) for a definition of “education”. Legislators could use standardized tests to supply some limited definition of “education”.

    While I support charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, relaxation of restrictions on homeschooling, and subsidized homeschooling, I prefer a policy I call “Parent Performance Contracting“.

  4. Johnny Utah says:

    When I hear the term school choice, I immediately think of two terms–racism and classism.

    These are generally thought of as bad things in our society. People don’t want their children to have to go to school with the other kids (Black, poor, Hispanic). School choice allows that to be a consideration and for many Americans, those issues will override choosing a school based on other educational factors. That’s wrong.

    The ending quotation was particularly egregious; school choice is the common denominator unifying all “reformist strategies.” Shulls’ cheeky approach to the blog post is most distasteful, predicated on the idea that readers won’t understand what he means or what he’s after–privatization.

    School choice should not even be in the conversation, let alone part of the answer.

  5. […] high standards for students when their administrators and parents are backing them up. That’s true accountability. Government tests incentivize gaming the system rather than true accountability. They function like […]

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