Parents, students, educators, and pro-liberty activists across the nation will be celebrating National School Choice Week, which began on Sunday and will wrap up on January 30. It’s a time to celebrate the education choices some students now enjoy and to open up similar opportunities for all students. All children deserve access to a quality education. Politicians must stop making parents ask for permission to educate their children properly, because parents know better than anyone else which educational strategies and environments will work best. It is up to all taxpayers to demand school choice and give parents the power to guide their children’s education.
School choice empowers parents by giving them some power over school funding, taking it out of the hands of the education bureaucracy. The current system of ZIP-code-based education empowers the education bureaucracy and results in a de facto apartheid-style education system that divides the haves and the have-nots. Students deserve better, and taxpayers should not be forced to pay for such an unjust education regime.
School choice takes many forms. The most familiar are vouchers and scholarship programs that pay for a student’s tuition to attend a school of their choosing, usually with significant limits on who can participate. Education savings accounts are individual accounts funded by the state, with parents directing all state-approved spending, typically via a debit card. The funds can be used for tuition at virtually any school, books, special classes, and even transportation to and from school. Some states allow personal income tax credits for education expenses.
School choice has been studied for decades. A gold standard study of school choice programs in Washington, DC in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management revealed choice students graduated at a rate of 91 percent, whereas the control group, who did not have access to a school choice program, graduated at only a 70 percent rate. Other significant results of school choice are increases in black students enrolling in college and increases in college persistence.
Rich suburban districts are not immune to poor education. According to the Global Report Card, nearly one-third of the 50 richest school districts in the nation failed to reach the 50th percentile in math. Almost 50 percent of these same districts ranked lower than international counterparts in math despite “world-class” spending on education.
A parent’s ability to direct $5,000 to $9,000 to the school of their choice is much more valuable, powerful, and immediate than just having a vote once every four years on who gets to run the local public school district. Money following a child to school of choice will produce faster and better educational outcomes for every child. This money directly provides parents with the power and incentives needed to create and fund their own neighborhood schools, specialty schools, or whatever fits the education needs of their children.
Parents in Chicago are repeatedly forced to protest, beg, and ask for money to keep neighborhood schools open. This begging usually goes unheeded. In 2013, for example, parents begged the Chicago Public School board not to close schools, but the district closed 50 schools anyway. Protests are still occurring today in neighborhoods in Chicago over these very same issues. Some activists have even resorted to hunger strikes, as happened during the past fall in response to the closing of Dyett High School. School choice can end the need for repeated protests by freeing families from a system that slots their children into schools based solely on their ZIP code.
In addition to the explicit fraud and corruption exposed in a recently released annual report of the Inspector General for Chicago Public Schools, the district spends more than $15,000 per child on instruction and overhead. This money is not being used effectively. Twenty-five percent of Chicago’s students enrolled in traditional public schools are proficient in English and math, and only 69.4 percent of Chicago students graduate. Further, of those who do graduate, only 28 percent are ready for college.
These results are abysmal, and parents are understandably outraged. Giving these parents control of the purse strings is the key to forcing schools to focus on the students and to remove fraud and waste.
Every child deserves access to a quality education, especially if taxpayers are being forced to pay for it. We will never achieve quality education for all through a one-size-fits-all system in which the great majority of decisions are made by largely unaccountable bureaucrats. School Choice Week honors the parents and taxpayers who are calling on lawmakers to let parents, not ZIP codes, decide how to educate their children.
Lennie Jarratt (Ljarratt@heartland.org) is project manager for education transformation at The Heartland Institute