School Choice Works

Published September 1, 2008

Americans spend more on elementary and high schools and get less learning for their money than citizens in other developed nations.

Only 40 percent of U.S. high school graduates enroll directly in college, and of those who do, only four in 10 finish in four years. Only 31 percent of college graduates in America are prose-literate, meaning they can read and understand a newspaper.

The traditional government-operated school is not the only way to educate children, and it has clearly proven it is not the best way. Charter schools are one of the newer alternatives to traditional public schools–they are publicly funded schools with private boards often staffed by idealistic members of the communities they serve. They run on about 80 percent of the budget of a traditional public school, but recent studies show they do a better job of educating children.

And they are desirable: More people want their children in charter schools than there are available spaces for them. In Massachusetts, for example, waiting lists comprise about 55 percent of the total enrollments.

Charter schools that don’t meet parental expectations don’t survive. Because parents choose whether their children will attend, undesirable charter schools lose students or fail to recruit them in the first place. Charter schools without students must close. Studies have shown the presence of charter schools forces nearby public schools to improve.

Common Good

Private schools are a more traditional alternative to public schools. Some parents, usually those with the financial means to do so, have rejected the public school system, despite the tuition cost of private schools. Dissatisfaction compels families to spend thousands of dollars on a service otherwise freely but badly provided.

Private schools have lived up to parents’ expectations. Study after study proves private education is better than public education: It is more cost-effective, graduates more students, and sends more students to elite universities. Public and privately funded voucher programs that allow poor children to attend private schools are usually heavily oversubscribed and must turn away families.

Successful Desegregation

Catholic schools in particular have been rigorously studied. They operate on about half of the budget of public schools while consistently better educating their students. In racial breakdowns, they reflect the communities in which they operate. Public schools under court orders to desegregate are still struggling to do so, while private schools have largely accomplished this goal.

In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court declared it constitutional for states to allow families to participate in voucher programs with parochial and independent schools, and these have generally proven to be an educational boost. When parents are allowed to decide which school their child will attend, they feel more connected to their children’s schools, and that connection itself promotes their children’s education.

When parents choose their children’s schools, segregation tends to decrease, because voucher parents more often choose less-segregated schools outside their own segregated neighborhoods.

Other Nations’ Experiences

Much of the most rigorous and extensive research on school vouchers has taken place outside the United States in such countries as Colombia and Sweden. The results: Voucher students generally excel.

Public school boards, educators, and unions express objections to school vouchers. Of course, few heavily subsidized providers want competition, particularly effective competition that appeals to customers. They justifiably fear public school enrollments, budgets, and jobs will decline substantially unless they can somehow improve.

They are right. How many citizens would choose to eat at costly, unfulfilling, government-operated restaurants?

As it is, parents are making some choices about their children’s educations. They will relocate when possible to put their children in a good school district. Because of this, good schools improve property values and draw industry to communities.

More importantly, when parents have confidence in their schools, they participate more actively in volunteer programs, and they vote more resources to those schools. When parents think their schools are good, they become better. Choice, whether attained through private schools, charters, or vouchers, helps parents admire their own communities and their children’s schools.

Power to Change

Schools are like other providers of goods and services. When they compete, they become more cost-effective and provide better service. In the current system, public schools are largely protected from competition and have become so ineffective they threaten our nation’s prosperity and well-being.

Even so, lawmakers have instead increased the size of school districts, which has further reduced competition, citizen influence, and parental choice. This is backwards thinking. Larger, particularly big-city, school districts have not saved money but have hurt learning, creating mediocre schools and reducing the options parents have to move to better schools.

Parents who are able to escape to private schools no longer invest themselves in public schools. Those who can escape to smaller districts in the suburbs are similarly indifferent.

In the land of the free, parents have little freedom in educating their children. Not only is this against the very things our nation stands for, but it is leaving us with generations of poorly educated children. It may be within our reach to change.

Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s chairman of the board, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of School Choice: The Findings (Cato Institute, 2008).