This year’s state legislative sessions, now coming to a close, have yielded a blizzard of high-profile victories on school choice, from the enactment of universal education savings accounts (ESA) programs, to the expansion of private school choice policies to serve many more families, to fairer funding for charter schools. These gains have come primarily in red states, even as choice opponents in blue states have, if anything, strengthened their hand, with resurgent teacher unions and energized progressives denouncing charter schools (never mind vouchers and ESAs) as nefarious “privatization.”
What can choice supporters take from these developments? It seems to me that there are at least four big takeaways, all of them rooted in the kind of reflection that I suggest in my new book, The Great School Rethink (Harvard Education Press 2023).
First, when it comes to educational choice, it turns out that huge swaths of seemingly “satisfied” parents see the value in having more options—at least when it’s offered in terms of taking care of their kid rather than bashing their public schools. The pandemic and value-laden fights fueled by political polarization have made choice appealing to many families that never thought much about it before. This is what’s driving so many of the legislative wins. As I put it in The Great School Rethink:
How do we reconcile parent support for more choices with affection for their local public schools? It’s not hard, really. Parents want options. They may wish for alternatives when it comes to scheduling, school safety, or instructional approach . . . At the same time, though, they also value schools as community anchors, like their kid’s teachers, and may live where they do precisely because they like the local schools . . . The notion that one is either for empowering parents or supporting public education is a misleading one. Real parents don’t think this way.
Now, some observers see a handful of very online choice advocates denouncing “failing public schools” or calling to “blow up school systems,” and seem to imagine that these appeals are helping to fuel choice gains. I think they have this wholly backwards. Choice enthusiasts have been issuing such screeds for many years. What’s changed is that, after the pandemic, many more parents are open to choice even though the lion’s share continue to like their local public schools. Advocates who get this are more likely both to win over red-state parents and to bolster their case with blue-state ones. Indeed, many apolitical parents who just want good options for their kids are alienated by reformers who seem like wannabe revolutionaries.
Second, it’s more useful to think of “educational choice” than “school choice.” From start to finish, schooling is a stew of choices made by students, parents, educators, system officials, and policymakers. Attendance zones, discipline policies, electives, homework policies, when to start school—schools are nothing but a series of choices about education. Given that, we need to appreciate that school choice works much better in some places (like urban areas studded with schools) than in others (like sparsely populated rural communities or those lacking in convenient transportation). Even in locales where the promise of school choice may be more limited, many families stand to benefit mightily from educational choice that allows them to address their child’s needs. This may take the form of course choice, access to apprenticeships or other terrific career and technical education options, hybrid homeschooling in which a student works from home a portion of a week, supplemental learning pods, or much else. Choice options that provide educational choice, and not just school choice, have the potential to do more good for more families.
Third, closely related to the previous point, it was long held that limiting choice programs to low-income students was a good way to serve “families in need” and minimize political opposition. Of course, one consequence was that most parents rightly judged that school choice just didn’t have much to do with their kids. And, while you’ll often hear those parents get told that their kids “are just fine,” it turns out that they don’t necessarily agree. (If you’ve never talked to an affluent parent driven to tears by frustrations with their local public school, you haven’t talked to enough parents.) School choice programs that include middle-class kids have frequently been dismissed as somehow less virtuous than those that only help low-income kids escape from awful schools. But the pandemic made clear that many of those middle-class kids aren’t “just fine.” Educational choice can be both a lifeboat for families stuck in unsafe or academically inept schools and an answer for those frustrated by mediocre math instruction, too many long-term subs, or ideology run amok.
Finally, charter proponents have long insisted that charters are “public,” as opposed to, say, publicly-funded voucher programs, this in an attempt to cultivate Obama-style Democrats who were cool with “reinventing government” but less so with “privatization.” As the political tectonic plates have shifted, however, that semantic argument looks to have largely lost its mojo. It’s time to jettison tendentious definitional games and demand a more coherent standard. After all, public school districts routinely contract with for-profit firms for books, buses, technology, and testing—and pay to place hard-to-serve students in private settings. Public school systems charge fees for various extracurricular activities and accept funds from private philanthropy. Yet these systems are casually deemed “public.” Why? Well, mostly because we take it for granted. Choice opponents like to assert that public schools are “public” because they’re funded by public tax dollars allocated by public officials. Fair enough. But that means that, when states establish charter schools, ESAs, or voucher programs, lawmakers are funding those services with public funds, so they obviously meet the “public dollars” standard, too.
Indeed, less “public” schools may, sometimes, better serve public ends. Take citizenship education. University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf has noted that the evidence suggests that private schools outperform public schools as far as promoting tolerance, democratic participation, civic knowledge, and voluntarism. The bottom line is that the boundaries of “public education” are far less precise than choice critics like to pretend. There are many ways to provide and serve the aims of public education. The choice community needs to explain this, then educate and legislate on the need for a principled (rather than a political) standard. I think transparency of outcomes and academic materials should play a major role here, and I’m game for linking eligibility for public funds to demonstrated performance, so long as such a standard is consistently applied—to district schools as well as alternatives.
The cacophony in educational choice today is a wonderful thing. It’s America at its Tocquevillian best. A robust, fractious choice movement should be enormously healthy. As I observed in Education Next last spring, charter schooling is well-served by a “big tent” strategy that allows it “to evolve in very different ways in different locales.” But in an age of polarization, social media hijinks, and deep distrust, it can be easy for uneasy allies to turn nasty and fratricidal. We mustn’t let it.
A healthy choice movement should be a “both/and” coalition. This, for me, is perhaps the most telling takeaway from the pandemic. It turns out that Americans can like their public schools and still wants lots of other options, and opportunities to do what’s right for their child and situation. And for millions of families buffeted by closures, mediocre remote instruction, short-staffed schools, and culture clashes, that seems like an eminently reasonable stance.
Now, look, within a big tent, there’s copious room for fruitful disagreement on tactics and policy. Preferring ESAs to charters, or charters to ESAs, for instance, strikes me as wholly valid—especially with regard to the logistical challenges of standing up ESAs or the political realities of a given state. That’s hard-headed federalism at work. What’s feasible or appealing in Illinois will be different than what works in Indiana; the same can be said of Oregon and Ohio, or California and Colorado. But what we shouldn’t do is cling to old prejudices or destructive caricatures, especially when they leave us ill-equipped for the opportunities and challenges of an evolving landscape.