Feminists Are Challenged to Support School Choice

Published October 1, 2004

Feminist groups are out of touch with women on the issue of education, concludes a new study by Carrie L. Lukas for the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF). Lukas points out that women, children, and communities benefit from school choice policies, yet feminist groups oppose vouchers and tax credits and offer only tepid support for public school choice programs. Lukas urges women’s groups to return from their “recess from reality” and support school choice.

“Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim to be ‘pro-choice,'” said Lukas, who is IWF’s policy director. “But when it comes to giving parents a choice about where to send their kids to school, they change their tune and fight any program that gives parents more control.”

In her report, “Recess from Reality: The Feminist Failure to Embrace School Choice,” Lukas outlines feminist arguments against school choice and shows them to be baseless. She also questions whether the solution offered by these groups–increased funding–would be likely to improve education outcomes. She points out that spending on public education has increased substantially in the past three decades, while achievement has been stagnant.

“The combination of high per-pupil spending and weak student outcomes has resulted in American schools being dubbed the least productive in the industrialized world,” she notes.

Lukas suggests the real solution is to create an education marketplace that puts “individuals in control of resources and having providers compete to win their patronage.” While middle-income and wealthy families have the ability to move to an area with better schools, the poor do not have the same opportunities. Interest in and implementation of voucher, tax credit, charter, and public school choice programs has grown as more people recognize the public school system does not serve students and families well.

School choice programs benefit women and their families in several ways. For example, the current system, which assigns students to schools based on where they live, hurts women and their families by pushing them to purchase an expensive home to gain access to a good school. The cost of doing this can push into the workplace women who would prefer to stay at home, notes Lukas, citing Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi’s book, The Two-Income Trap. The cost can also draw families out of urban areas and promote economic and residential segregation.

“Bad schools impose indirect–but huge–costs on millions of middle-class families,” write Warren and Tyagi. “In their rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy.”

Numerous researchers, including Caroline Minter Hoxby of Harvard University and Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, have demonstrated the benefit of school choice programs to communities. Voucher and charter school programs spur traditional public schools to improve. Such programs can improve the academic achievement of participants as well as those who remain in their neighborhood schools.

Feminist groups ignore the benefits of school choice, and instead raise objections. Lukas addresses feminist arguments against vouchers and tax credits from the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and National Women’s Law Center:

Vouchers divert funds from public schools, thereby weakening them.

Choice policies do not deprive public schools of funds, explains Lukas. Private schools cost less than public schools. Providing a family with a voucher equal to the average tuition at a private school, which is less than the per-pupil expenditure at a public school, would provide resources for public schools. In 1999-2000, for example, average private school tuition was $4,689, while public school tuition was more than $8,000.

Vouchers provide disproportionate help to private religious school students.

Lukas points out that most private schools are religiously affiliated because the market for non-religious private schools is much smaller than that for secular schools, largely because the public school system provides families with a free secular education. In higher education, Lukas notes, the government does not discriminate against faith-based schools. All students receiving benefits under the federal G.I. bill may attend a public or private school of their choice.

Private schools lack accountability.

“Private schools and charter schools are held accountable by parents who can elect whether or not to send their children to those schools,” counters Lukas. “This form of accountability is more thorough than accountability based on the outcome of one measure such as a standardized test.”

Moreover, she points out, bad private and charter schools go out of business, while poorly performing public school remain open.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation.

For more information …

The July 20, 2004 study by Carrie L. Lukas for the Independent Women’s Forum, “Recess from Reality: The Feminist Failure to Embrace School Choice,” is available online at http://www.iwf.org/pdf/recess.pdf.