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Arguments Against School Choice Presume We Have Options

(Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

“In short, if public schooling on average is so woefully inadequate, how can we take seriously the argument that if a family cannot afford or otherwise access private or home schooling, public schooling is a perfectly sufficient choice?”

With the recent passage of school voucher bills in Iowa, Arizona, and Utah, and with a similar bill under consideration in Virginia, the question of school choice has increasingly moved to the front and center of our public consciousness. While parents and politicians have been toying with voucher and charter school programs since the 1980s, the major disruption of schooling caused by pandemic-driven public school policies seems to have made the question all the more pressing. 

Dissatisfaction with pandemic schooling led families to leave public schools in droves in 2020 in particular, and the trend has continued ever since. These families have sought alternative educational solutions upon withdrawing from public schooling, not only embracing private schooling and traditional home schooling in great numbers (home schooling rates jumped dramatically to likely somewhere between 6% and 11% of schoolchildren; unfortunately, home schoolers are notoriously difficult to count), but also trying out creative responses such as establishing learning pods and employing private tutors. Public school systems, on the whole, have reacted shamefully, including the infamous letter sent out by one of the largest school systems in the country, that of Fairfax County, Virginia, telling parents they should not create learning pods because then their children would receive a better education than public school kids, which would leave the public school children behind.

While Fairfax County’s implication that parents should neglect their own children just because taking care of them might “widen the [achievement] gap” is preposterous, it does speak to the underlying problem at the heart of resistance to school choice: that for most Americans currently, there simply is no choice.  

And that is why school vouchers are critical to repairing American education. 

The idea that most American parents already have choices in education is central to the argument against school vouchers, a claim that is repeated across print, in person, and in social media conversations. The idea is that it is not the public’s job to provide for choices in schooling because people already have acceptable choices. Families have a good option in public schooling, and they are also free to send their children to private schools or to educate them at home. This freedom to choose private or home schooling should not absolve any individual family from paying taxes in support of public education, the argument goes, because we all already have free choices, and we all also have a responsibility to provide a free education for all American children. If a parent cannot afford private school, that is his or her own problem. 

This argument’s fundamental presumptions, that public schools in most school districts in America are a real “choice” and that families who cannot afford private schooling should be satisfied with public, is blatantly fallacious. Even a cursory glance at the data proves definitively that American public schools are failing to provide an adequate education for many, perhaps even most public schoolchildren. See, for example, reporting on test scores by The New York Times. Or better yet, take a look at state Departments of Education data, which is available online in most cases. 

Anecdotally, I can also attest that at the college where I teach, students matriculating in recent years have been tremendously damaged by pandemic public schooling in particular. Those coming from schools affected by pandemic policies struggle noticeably with reading comprehension and attention, and they also lack important communication skills. The difference between these students and incoming freshmen before the pandemic is stark. One also notices differences between students coming from public school backgrounds, where these policies were most in play, and from home schooling and some private schooling. 

For that matter, I think we all have the common sense to acknowledge that public schooling as a whole is not not doing its job, and that we have been in a stalemate over possible solutions for a number of decades now. And to take the example of Fairfax County again, school systems not only do not want parents to have the choice to do better by their own children, but they are unwilling to try it themselves for the students in their care: “FCPS cannot accommodate such requests.” School systems are so protective of themselves that they tie the hands of sincere teachers in countless ways and increasingly exclude parent views from consideration. The idea that parents may harm public schools by withdrawing their children only holds weight if the schools are not harmful to children in the first place.  

In short, if public schooling on average is so woefully inadequate, how can we take seriously the argument that if a family cannot afford or otherwise access private or home schooling, public schooling is a perfectly sufficient choice? 

The answer is that we cannot. Most American parents truly have no good choice in schooling in today’s status quo. Even a solidly middle-class family, making well above the poverty line at say, $80,000, often cannot afford a single child’s private school tuition, and many parents cannot choose to home school because financial pressures require both (or the only) adults in a family to work full-time outside the family context. Meanwhile, the route that the government chooses for them—the post-pandemic public school—is unacceptable. These “you already have a choice” arguments sound an awful lot like something a clueless friend once said: “If people don’t want to be poor, they should just get a better job.”  

The arguments against school choice betray an astonishing lack of empathy and imagination.

The obvious truth is that we as a society and as a government simply are not providing for the free education of our children, despite our constitutional and legal commitments to the right to adequate schooling. And though this has been brought into focus by the catastrophic harms done to children by pandemic school policies, we ought to realize in light of the history of the past 40 years that no positive reforms will be coming to our public schools in the short term—that is, in time for today’s children to be affected.  

But won’t an even greater exodus of students and funds from public schooling be disastrous for public schools, one might well wonder? This is a concern, but it is more likely that such a change would instead finally force us to address the problems in public schooling, those issues which we neglect in favor of buying iPads rather than pencils and teaching from eviscerated curricula such as the Common Core. If taxpayers can redirect funds from failing public schools to more efficient private and home schools, it seems likely that the resultant financial pressure on school systems (and on powerful teacher unions and their lobbyists) may catalyze important changes. If parents have the choice not to accept poor schooling for their children, we may see a greater willingness among educational policymakers and school administrators to make educational decisions out of something other than political correctness or attachment to educational fads and technologies that are not grounded in research. 

And, in the meantime, our children would actually learn to read, write, and figure, and would also gain all the other benefits of a good education. Real school choice, based on taxpayer support of alternative private and home schooling through vouchers or similar solutions, is thus the only just way forward.

Dixie Dillon Lane is a historian of American education whose writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Hearth & Field, and Wallflower, among other publications. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and can be found on Twitter @DixieDillonLane

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