A Sustainable Path to School Choice
Few areas of American life have experienced more conflict of late than K–12 education. Frustration with district schools’ preference for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role, as have high-octane culture wars about racial equity and curriculum. Between spring and fall 2020, homeschooling rates nearly doubled; for African American families, the rate quintupled. Dozens of states enacted or expanded private-school scholarship laws to help low-income families attend private schools or “unbundle” their education altogether, and a cascade of states has begun implementing universal school choice. It is unclear whether district enrollments will fully recover.
Some right-of-center leaders may be eager to celebrate the breakup of a monopolistic bureaucracy and the introduction of greater choice into the American education system. But a conservative vision for public education should go beyond tearing down existing institutions and handing their functions to the market. Conservatives—and liberals—should advocate for an expansion of choice while also preserving a public role in guaranteeing academic quality and fostering an environment in which public and private options can coexist and complement one another.
Most democracies support “school choice” as a matter of principle. Critically, they also insist on academic guardrails. The coupling of choice plus academic accountability is called “educational pluralism” (see, for instance, “Introducing Pluralism to Public Schooling,” published by American Compass, or “The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S.,” published by the Manhattan Institute), which, when well designed, results in a mosaic of distinctive schools and strong academic performance. Nations from the UK and the Netherlands, to Indonesia, Singapore, and Australia all employ this model. Other democracies’ academic accountability takes many different forms, and some have been used to good effect in the United States. For example, the laws governing charter schools in New York and Massachusetts set a high bar for entry—a causal factor in these schools’ ability to close achievement gaps for minority students.
Libertarians within the right-of-center coalition often advocate the elimination of academic requirements altogether. Their argument is that market forces, exercised through parents’ decisions, are the most appropriate arbiters of quality; the state can only oppress. This is a flawed approach for at least three reasons.
First, rigorous, knowledge-building content works. Across the K–12 continuum, mastery of rigorous content exercises an independent, positive impact on young people’s opportunities. When American schools fail to provide this, they are leaving one of the most powerful levers off the table.
In practice, this means that while a wide variety of public and private schools should be eligible for public funding and free to operate as they see fit, all should be held accountable for covering a basic corpus of knowledge. Mastery of this content should be assessed in all schools through rigorous exams, the results of which provide clear signals to parents and teachers about each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and to the public about each school’s.
Second, parents need help. A hands-off approach leaves too many parents behind. Many well-resourced families can navigate the choices and identify high-powered options. But almost 40% of parents in urban contexts are functionally illiterate, with limited social networks. Surveys of parents in high-choice systems, and research on individual voucher programs like Washington, D.C.’s, show that parents newly empowered to exert agency on behalf of their children’s education face a steep learning curve. As one of the country’s foremost scholars of educational opportunity Patrick Wolf put it, parents don’t need information—“they need a person.” Nonprofits are springing up in the United States to fill this person-to-person need, but some pluralistic countries build “parent navigators” in from the beginning.
Furthermore, as conservatives increasingly acknowledge, the market logic that works so well for commodities can falter when applied to more complex contexts. We humans can get attached to people, places, and things that do not serve us well—including schools. Conversely, markets eagerly dispose of things to which we might rightly be attached. Closing a school may be the right thing for any number of reasons, but it inevitably leads to collective grief, anxiety, and sometimes outright resistance from community leaders or lobbyists. Kevin Huffman, commissioner of education for Tennessee from 2011–2015, tells a harrowing story of what he called his “abject failure” to shut down “the worst performing [charter] school in Tennessee,” in the face of such pressures.
My argument is not that parents don’t know any better and shouldn’t be given choices for their own children. Rather, it is that education policy should be crafted so that, as they make those choices, parents can trust that there are no truly low-quality options on the table. To quote education scholar Charles Glenn, “It is an appropriate goal of public policy to ensure that there are no failing schools.” In today’s world, we could expand his statement to include virtual, hybrid, and homeschooling. You want parent choice to succeed? Make sure there aren’t any truly dreadful choices.
An analog is the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which exists to “provide nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency.” The program restricts eligible products to generally healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and proteins such as meat, poultry, and fish. The program will not fund products such as “beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco,” or nonfood items such as pet food.
Third, education has a public purpose. The most important reason to ensure academic quality is that doing so reflects the original purpose of government-funded education. Lest we forget, the primary reason that democracies ask taxpayers to support the education of other people’s children is because these children’s lives (including workforce participation and social wellbeing) and political capacities (understanding democratic institutions, analyzing legislation, and voting) shape ours. This dual purpose of opportunity creation and civic formation runs like a thread throughout the nation’s educational history, state constitutions, Supreme Court decisions, and public reports. Put differently, the ultimate purpose of public funding for education is not to bolster parental autonomy or individual interest per se. It is to support the common good.
As noted, most democracies support a wide variety of schools and hold them all accountable. The United States used to be plural, too, but the culture wars of the 19th century reduced our understanding of “public education” to one thing: the district school. We are left with a public vs. private binary and a zero-sum-game approach. It’s no surprise to find district leaders diminishing charter schools, and choice advocates diminishing “failing public schools.”
Educationally plural systems, by contrast, focus on improving each individual school rather than pitting entire sectors against one another.
Here’s an example. The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) researches and promotes evidence-based programs across all school sectors. In a 2016 conversation with a senior researcher at the EEF, I asked whether they had studied the outcomes of different school sectors. He was dumbfounded; no one had ever posed that question before. The point, he said, is to help all schools get better, not elevate one type above others.
Nor is education a political football in such systems; England’s Labour Members of Parliament are on record defending the tradition of funds for religious schools.
Education leaders in the U.S. should follow suit and drop their weapons. Good things are happening in every school sector. There should be room for everybody. Beyond the strong philosophical and empirical reasons to support academic excellence and resist the take-no-prisoners approach to education policy, there is also an instrumental one: Casting a positive vision from a generous, pluralist space is more likely to build nimbler and more politically sustainable school systems in the long run. And that would be a win for families, students, and teachers.