How To Make the Case For School Choice

A powerful opportunity to strengthen the human connection between student and school, and to boost the power of teachers to improve their practice.

Elizabeth Warren’s education plan, released this month, features copious new spending, new plans for Washington to dictate student discipline and collective bargaining policy, and an attack on charter schools. The anti-charter piece is more than a little ironic, given that Warren once wrote a book arguing that “fully funded vouchers would relieve parents” from choosing between “lousy schools” or “bankrupting themselves.” And, it’s hardly necessary to observe that Warren has plenty of company in her anti-choice pivot.

School choice proponents have, once again, responded with claims that school choice “works,” attacks on the public school system for “a massive decline in educational attainment,” and appeals to moral authority. These responses all suffer from real problems. The claims that choice “works” depend a lot on which studies one looks at, what kinds of choice schools are involved, and how success is measured. Attacks on district schools anger teachers (who feel criticized) and plenty of parents (who tend to like their local schools), and can leave choice proponents looking ideological and out of touch. And the moral claim depends on the audience believing that you are actually putting the kids first and that your opponents aren’t—a claim that’s especially tough when teachers seem to be on the other side.

These tactics have contributed to a stalemate. While more people consistently support than oppose school choice, choice advocates have managed to complicate the task of explaining a likeable, sensible idea. Advocates have tended to respond by telling one another that they need better “messaging” and PR, more coordination, and a stronger political operation. This advice about political tactics may well be true. I’m not a political operative, so I can’t really say. But I do think there’s a larger opportunity here, one that’s less about pitching “school choice” and more about grasping its promise. As I’ve said before, it would be healthy for school choice advocates to answer Warren et al. by offering something like the following:

I support school choice, but choice alone is not “the answer.” It is only a start—a tool that can help crack open closed systems, free families from schools that aren’t right for their child, and allow educators to seek or create environments where they can do their best work. At the same time, we must also remain mindful of how efforts to legislate school improvement can go south.

After all, teaching and learning are intuitive acts. Humans are natural learners, with minds hard-wired to ask questions and seek out knowledge. Adults are predisposed to share knowledge, interests, and skills. Great schools are places where adults engage, inform, and shape young minds. Parental choice is a powerful way to keep the natural, human dimension of school improvement front and center, because it provides families with opportunities to find the school that works for their child today.

Given the nature of schooling in America, both its complexity and the limited control that state or federal officials have over schools, it’s tough for politicos to write laws that really make schools better. Congress can craft laws that tell federal officials to write rules for states, which then write rules for school districts, which then give directions to schools. Presidents and governors can try to make schools do things, but they can’t make them do those things well. As we’ve seen with teacher evaluation or school turnarounds, whether reforms get pursued matters far less than how they are executed. And educators, quite understandably, wind up feeling dismissed and dumped on in the bargain.

On the other hand, school choice should serve to empower not only students but also educators. Educators are trapped in the same dysfunctional school bureaucracies as students. They are beleaguered by inconstant school board governance and frustrated by paperwork. They experience firsthand the problems of ill-conceived accountability systems and federal efforts to micromanage school discipline. Teachers have every right to be concerned about out-of-touch politicos and capricious bureaucrats. As AFT President Al Shanker observed so lucidly three decades ago, there’s great power in enabling professionals to choose schools where they can do their best work or to build such schools themselves.

Finally, school choice makes possible the emergence of new schools and systems that are less encumbered by the tangle of education regulations, rules, and routines that frustrate so many educators and educational leaders. Federal guidelines prevent districts from cutting spending that’s no longer productive, prohibit funds from being distributed in sensible ways, and impose crushing paperwork burdens on harried educators. A half-century of state and federal rulemaking has turned “compliance” into a mantra and distorted the impact of even reasonable policies.

Expanding educational choice isn’t a “solution” or a cure-all. But it’s a powerful opportunity to strengthen the human connection between student and school, boost the power of teachers to improve their practice, and make it more possible to design schools that can serve all of our nation’s students. And that is the right place for school improvement to begin.

Thinking and talking about school choice in this way might not convince every skeptic. But lots of years of experience lead me to believe it might sway a few hearts and minds, and that’s a fine start.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

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