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School Choice: Success for Those Who Need It Most

By: Alice Salles - Feb 10, 2015, 9:15 am

During School Choice Week at the end of January, the Virginia-based Franklin Center invited journalists from all over the United States to listen to educational experts, visit schools, and talk to students.

Representatives from different groups dedicated to widening choice in education were invited to speak. While some speakers represented conservative and libertarian organizations, others came from different political traditions. It was inspiring to see so many different people coming together to defend freedom.

Ben Scafidi, a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, discussed the efficacy of school choice. Some of his points served as an important reminder that freedom always works, driving up quality for parents and students, and delivering educational improvements nationwide.

School Choice 101

Professor Ben Scafidi addressing journalists during the Franklin Center's School Choice event.
Professor Ben Scafidi addressing journalists during the Franklin Center’s School Choice event.

Children are often assigned to a particular public school because of their residential address, with special needs or personal preference overlooked in the process. This happens because most parents are unable to afford schools that meet their child’s needs.

When public schools aren’t enough, there’s only so much cash-strapped families can do. The result is that children from low-income households suffer further disadvantage through poor schooling.

On the other hand, wealthier families can afford sending their kids to private institutions. Their children then go on to achieve far more, not necessarily because they’re any brighter than their low-income counterparts, but because their parents have been able to make the choice that best suits their learning.

Offering alternatives to families coming from different financial backgrounds is the basis of what the school choice movement represents. In other words: it wants all kids to have a fair shot.

Flunking the Critics

School-choice activists oppose keeping children enslaved to their zip code, instead seeking for parents to regain the right to make their own decisions for their family.

Unfortunately for parents, teachers’ unions still have a strong grip over the US education sector. Their influence encourages local and federal governments to maintain a tight grip on education. Their mantra — it takes a village to raise a child — is exactly the kind of approach that prevents kids from seeking their own path.

This collectivizing culture eliminates any chance at the nuanced approach needed to provide the best fit for children. Yet proponents of free choice are regularly attacked by the public-school zealots, who wrongly believe that choice hurts government schools. In fact, freedom to choose does the exact opposite.

Research has shown that competition between schools actually helps all kids. Kids who stay in the public sector also benefit when some children leave to pursue other paths. Class sizes are reduced, competition boosts the public sector, and kids have something to strive for.

Not one bit of research has shown that children are harmed by school choice. So why are parents still given such a hard time when they call for the right to choose?

Vested Interests: Zero Marks

Milton Friedman observed that “people don’t recognize how powerful politically the teachers’ unions are.” This state of affairs has only increased, with unions spending huge amounts of money on lobbying. Nor do they even follow democratic procedures themselves: bosses spend millions cajoling members to vote as the leadership wants.

Charter schools, by contrast, are often open to hiring qualified teachers who are not union members. Such schools have the freedom to fire professionals who are under-performing. Unionized public-school workers, however, are hard to dislodge even when negligent: giving them few incentives to work hard.

When teachers fail to put in sufficient effort, it’s their students that suffer, with those who can’t afford to move to independent schools taking the brunt of the failure.

According to Scafidi, all research points to the same conclusion: freedom in education benefits all. So legislators, teachers, and parents are faced with a choice: to follow the empirical evidence backing freedom of choice, or to stick to vested interests of anti-choice unions.

What’s the way out of falling public school standards and limited parental choice? Giving freedom a chance seems like the right answer to me.

Edited by Laurie Blair.

Alice Salles Alice Salles

Alice Salles is a wordsmith, editor, and ghost writer. As a UnitedLiberty.org contributor and columnist for the popular Brazilian culture and politics website Liberzone.com.br, she covers both foreign and domestic policy and offers commentary from a libertarian perspective. Follow @AliceSalles.