(By Jaimie Erker, 1776 Scholar) I was a product of public school and am a firm supporter of school choice. Sound like an oxymoron? On the surface, yes; however I have experienced the great benefits of a free market within the education sector.
When I was in elementary school, I was slated to attend an elementary school where the classes would be taught bilingually. Because my district had closed enrollment, the only other option my parents had was to enter my name in a lottery to try and send me to the local charter school. During the dark days of closed enrollment, the high school I was slated to attend, due to closed enrollment, was a “gang school:” high crime and drug rates, with poor educational success. My goal as a young student was to be able to qualify for the IB (International Baccalaureate) program at a different high school, so I would not attend the struggling high school I would be forced to attend because of where I lived.
By the time I headed to high school, my district adopted open enrollment. With that, the high schools were able to compete to gain the better students and balance their demographics rather than all the smart students fleeing to the IB school.
In this newly opened “free market” of schools, each high school created their own emphasis, such as a Leadership program, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, a Visual and Performing Arts program, a Pre-Med program, and an Advanced Placement (AP) emphasis program. Each of these emphasis schools were able to draw students from around the district based upon the student’s interest and future goals, causing them to compete for the better students. Because of this free competition of schools and school programs, each high school had equal opportunity to draw the best and brightest students, with no hindrance based upon socio-economic status or part of the city in which they lived. In short, my high school was able to flip its reputation from the “gang school” to one of the top schools in the district.
According to the Friedman Foundation, school choice is defined as “allow[ing] public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs—whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids.”
Instead of the federal government taking tax dollars and appropriating funds to public schools, the tax dollars are appropriated to the parents to be able to spend the money however they choose for their child’s educational needs. In this system, all educational institutions benefit.
The original idea of public schools was a good thing: to create an educated citizenry. However, for decades, America has struggled to create an adequate education policy in which students are equipped to be the future world leaders, while also keeping costs low.
According to Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, federal education spending has increased 128% from 1970 to 2005, yet test scores and literacy remain extremely low. On top of this, reforms and attempts at standardization through such policies as Common Core were met by criticism on both sides of the aisle, with very few positive results to show for it.
The answer to education policy is simple: devolution.
The first step in this process is to limit federal intervention in trying to dictate what occurs in the classroom. An education bureaucrat in D.C. does not know the needs of the student in rural Kansas or the student in inner-city Detroit. Curriculum decisions need to be made at the local level, being left up to the school board of each school district. Is there room for some government oversight in this? Perhaps; however, the key point is to give members of the community, such as the parents and teachers directly involved, a greater voice in their local schools.
The next step is to adopt a school voucher system on a state-by-state basis. Vouchers and education savings accounts (ESAs) have been widely successful in the many states that have adopted such measures and the statistics prove it. According to a study done by the University of Arkansas, reading scores went up 27% and math scores went up 15% among students in school choice programs.
With ESAs, parents and students are able to use their funds to pay for anything that benefits their child’s educational needs and pursuits. All schools are open enrollment, allowing students to bring their funds with them to public and charter schools. Parents with children who have special needs can use these funds for appropriate therapy and educational resources to help their children get the support they need. It can cover private school tuition and online educational opportunities. As well, homeschool families can use the funds to pay for the materials required. Parents who send their child to private school or choose to homeschool can use the tax money they would be paying anyway for school expenses they are actually incurring, rather than paying for the local public school from which they receive no service PLUS the expenses of their educational decisions.
Arizona was one of the first states to adopt ESAs and has experienced great success. Currently, Arizona’s program is limited to students with special needs, students in low-performing schools, students in foster care, and students whose parents are active military or killed-in-action. From this, students have had the opportunity to thrive in better schools, giving them better educational opportunities and experiences. There are numerous accounts of parents taking greater initiative and responsibility in picking out the best schools for their children. It is successful because parents are allowed back into the education sphere.
I would not trade my time and experience in public school for anything because it gave me a great opportunity to learn and grow into the person I am today; however, I was lucky. I had great teachers, a great selection of AP classes, and got to benefit from the visual and performing arts emphasis of the high school I chose. I wouldn’t trade my public school education for anything because I had the opportunity to choose which school I would attend within my open-enrollment school district. Imagine how many children’s lives could be impacted if all schools were open and available to them; regardless of geographic location and socio-economic status. Parents would be able to actually engage in their child’s education; teachers would have control of their classroom, without a D.C. bureaucrat telling them how to do their jobs.
The answer to education is simple: Let’s return it to the teachers and parents.