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The School Choice Debate

School choice is a topic that has once again become prominent in discussions about education. The appointment by the Trump administration of Betsy DeVos, an outspoken advocate of school choice as Secretary of Education, has reignited the debate around the issue. The Trump administration has made the expansion of school choice a central aspect of their education agenda. Extensive funds have been allocated to policies to expand school choice, including the promotion of school voucher programs and increased funds being available for charter schools. Her appointment has been met with reservation and scepticism by many teachers and especially teachers’ unions, who accuse her of an anti-public school agenda. Meanwhile, recent trials of school voucher programs in states such as North Carolina have also helped to reignite the debate around school choice. The expansion of school choice, while having been on the agenda of both the Bush and Obama administrations, has not been so central to discussions of education policy in many years.

The school choice debate is not a new one by any means. For several decades now, various school choice programs have been proposed to reform education in the United States. One of the reasons why school choice programs face difficulty in succeeding during recent times in particular is that they are often portrayed as a left-right issue. Typically, though not always, it is the right side of politics who campaign for school choice, with the left often opposing these measures. However, this has not always been the case. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, progressives led many ambitious programs to increase school choice. Many of the early efforts to expand school choice were lead by liberal Democrats, such as California’s Leo Ryan. Progressives back then supported expanding school choice for multiple reasons. Firstly, they believed that the prevailing system of assigning students to school by their postal code was discriminatory to students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They also believed that expanding school choice would help alleviate racial disparities in education. Spurred on by the spirit of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, these reformers saw school choice as a way of empowering disadvantaged communities and families to get ahead in life.

At present, school choice is a controversial issue among educators and teachers’ unions in particular. Recent protests in Arizona and several other red states highlight this fact. The teachers’ strikes in Arizona were primarily an issue of pay. However, the issue of school vouchers was also raised by many protesting teachers. Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, embarked on an ambitious voucher program which allows any family to draw on public funds to pay private school expenses. Many of the teachers who protested see this move as an attack on public schools and on education in general. Even after a deal was reached between the state and teachers, scepticism from the teachers’ union in Arizona remained.

Overall support for school choice varies significantly, depending on how the issue is framed. A recent study was conducted in the state of Wisconsin to survey people’s attitudes toward the issue. When asking respondents about the issue, several different messages were presented. Significantly different results occurred, depending on whether the respondent was a Democrat or a Republican. For instance, messaging which emphasised traditional values and civic virtue when promoting the benefit of school choice resonated well with Republicans. Republicans overall were found to be more favourable to school choice than Democrats.

For Democrats, who are less favourable to school choice in general, explaining how school choice could promote racial diversity and even the playing field for low-income students resulted in a sizeable increase of positive responses. When messaging was framed in this way, 51 per cent of Democrats favoured school choice, compared to only 29 per cent if given only a more basic definition of school choice. A similar percentage of Democrats, 54%, support tax credits for “individual and corporate donations that pay for [voucher-like] scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.” Despite this, only a handful of Democratic governors support expanding school choice.

Tailoring the message to values, rather than emphasising the academic results has been shown to be more effective. People of different ideological persuasions interpret information in different ways. A recent study adds credence to this argument. For his doctoral dissertation entitled “The Societal Impacts of Private School Choice around the World”, Corey DeAngelis examined the effects of private schooling on educational achievement and on non-cognitive skills. The first portion of the dissertation looks at the effects of private school enrolment on scores in the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA). It found that every 1 percent increase in private school enrolment led to a 1.4 and 1.1-point increase in results in maths and reading respectively. The second portion delves into data from 300,000 students in 44 countries. It found that private schooling resulted in significant gains across the board, particularly in STEM subjects. Finally, private school attendance through to 12th grade was found to significantly reduce the chances of having a criminal record. These results show that there are strong arguments both academically and morally for favouring school choice expansion. On a more practical level, there are arguments that can be tailored from these results to people of a variety of ideological persuasions.

Even though pointing out academic results may not be the most effective rhetorical device for winning over school choice sceptics, the academic case for allowing increased school choice is nonetheless compelling. An examination of recent PISA figures in the United States has found overall scores flatlining in recent years. Students who are already below average in achievement have fallen further behind in recent years. It is important to consider that around 90% of students in the United States attend public schools at present. With this in mind, there is clearly lots of room for expanding the proportion of students in private and charter schools.

Another overlooked aspect of the debate, particularly in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, is that of freedom of choice for teachers. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that teachers no longer had to pay fees to teachers’ unions if they did not want to be a part of one. Previously, such fees were compulsory for teachers, regardless of union membership. This change is an important one, as it puts more impetus on the unions to justify their membership and to deliver results for teachers. Coupled with competition from charter and private schools, teacher salaries generally rise compared to a union-dominated school system. Competition is an integral part of any industry to ensure accountability and high standards. Education should be no exception to this.

While some scepticism of funding arrangements for voucher proposals and other school choice reforms is understandable and valid, expanding school choice is prudent policy. The evidence in favour of expanded school choice is clear, and continually expanding. Private and charter schools have shown to deliver superior results in a majority of instances compared to public schools. The mere presence of private and charter schools in close proximity to public schools has shown positive effects on results in schools in a half-mile radius. Aside from this, the moral case for school choice is clear. Every child deserves the opportunity at the best education possible. Expanding school choice and giving parents and students greater freedom to choose a school that best fits their needs is imperative to realise this goal. As the likes of Leo Ryan and other progressive advocates of school choice recognised more than 40 years ago, expanding school choice is the best way to ensure egalitarian outcomes in education. It is time school choice opponents, particularly those on the Left, recognised the value of school choice in education and got behind these reforms.


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Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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9 thoughts on “The School Choice Debate

  1. Very interesting post Scott, though I disagree with some of your conclusions. I’ll first focus on this:

    “It found that private schooling resulted in significant gains across the board, particularly in STEM subjects. Finally, private school attendance through to 12th grade was found to significantly reduce the chances of having a criminal record. These results show that there are strong arguments both academically and morally for favouring school choice expansion.”

    Full disclosure: I attended 12 years of private (parochial) schools. With that said, simply putting a child on the lower end of the socio-economic scale in a private school will not magically deliver results unless there is a commitment from the child’s family. To that point, look at desegregation efforts in cities like Louisville. Results have been mixed and they cause cascading effects when the parents aren’t onboard and/or the school is not local to their home. We could say that school choice = parental involvement, and I don’t dispute that, but you can also create school choice within a school system.

    In addition to the district’s desegregation plan and the normal selection of ‘reside’ schools, Louisville’s school system (JCPS) also has a robust system of magnet, optional traditional and montessori programs.

    Magnet schools offer unique, schoolwide curricula. Many magnet schools accept applications from students throughout the district, and JCPS provides transportation for most students who are accepted.

    Optional programs are small, specialized programs within a school. Students who live outside the school’s attendance area may apply, but JCPS does not provide transportation for these students.

    A traditional school is a type of magnet school that focuses on teaching and learning at grade level in a traditionally structured classroom environment. Traditional schools require uniforms, daily homework, and parent involvement. A traditional program operates in the same way as a traditional school, but it’s a program within a school.

    A Montessori school uses the Montessori approach to learning, which encourages critical thinking, exploration, and self-directed education.

    In my opinion, this creates a lot of choice within the framework of a public school system, which then creates competition between those schools for those students, which is exactly what people like DeVos are advocating for.

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  2. I’m in favor of actual school choice.

    By that, I mean the consolidation of well funded and basically gated suburban and exurban school disricts with urban school districts so that all public school students in an area have access to good public schools with unionized well paid teachers instead of outsourcing the job to “non profit” organizations backed by billionaires.

    The truth is, 95% of what is positive about charter schools can be done in democratically accountable public schools with teachers that have strong workers protections.

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      • Because federal and state education money has largely been in control of people who are at best, ambivalent about public education (Large parts of Obama’s education policy is the only place where I agree with leftists that both parties were the same. DeVos is saying much of the same stuff Obama’s EdSec’s were, except now with extra bigotry!) and most urban districts don’t have the access to the billions that charter schools have access too, plus there’s things like administrators who want reasons to blame teachers and such. Also, public support of neighborhood schools over open district enrollment.

        I mean, here in Seattle, there are schools like Hazel Wolf K-8 STEM School. Totally public, open enrollment, etc. There’s nothing that shows it’s different than hyped charter schools is that it’s a public school where the teachers have tenure.

        https://hazelwolfk8.seattleschools.org/

        I’m sure there’s also bad, mean, terrible teachers that are destroying public schools.

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        • While I agree with you about the necessity for district-wide enrollment, I don’t think this is a money problem. There are frankly a lot of social problems that affect schools. Good example: A close relative of mine deals with parents navigating the student assignment plan here. In almost every case that someone is appealing their student assignment, they literally did nothing to ensure their kid could be placed in a school of their choice. The plan allows parents to select 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices but usually they don’t even send in the letter. My relative also helps deal with misplaced kids on the first day of school. Every year they have parents that just drop their kindergarten-aged kids off at the closest school because they didn’t read their mail. This doesn’t even touch on the complaints from teachers about un-involved parents, attendance issues, etc. Simply put, a lot of people in poorer areas aren’t great parents. It’s not that they are bad people, but they might be the 3rd or 4th generation to be poorly educated and poorly parented themselves. That has an effect on school results and the schools themselves have no real ability to mitigate that reality.

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          • Well, I agree it’s not a money problem when it comes to say, “education funding” in this case, but it is a problem in the case of “we have a very small welfare state that doesn’t actually do much to help children in poverty and their parents.”

            I mean, I don’t believe as a percentage, America has more “bad parents” than Germany. It’s just that countries like that put more resources to mitigating the damage those bad parents can do.

            My point on the lack of money is that all the shiny new buildings, staff, and other things that are currently being poored into charter schools have could’ve been spent on doing the same for already existing public schools or creating new public schools that would be open to all. It wouldn’t fix all the problems, but it wouldn’t hurt either.

            Along with like I said, consolidating school districts.

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            • “Well, I agree it’s not a money problem when it comes to say, “education funding” in this case, but it is a problem in the case of “we have a very small welfare state that doesn’t actually do much to help children in poverty and their parents.”

              I mean, I don’t believe as a percentage, America has more “bad parents” than Germany. It’s just that countries like that put more resources to mitigating the damage those bad parents can do.”

              No argument with you there. You and I might disagree with what those mitigation efforts look like, but I’m 100% onboard with doing something.

              “Along with like I said, consolidating school districts.”

              This is not something I am familiar with because Louisville only has one school district (two if you count the archdiocese). I could absolutely see how this is a problem.

              One thing I would caution on, if we open all schools to all people, it does create side-effects. My relative, who is a school social worker, sees a lot of kids who are being bused across town at a young age and then they have behavioral issues on the bus (her statement, “No 7 year-old can keep it together for a 90 minute bus ride every day.”) Our school system allows those kids to be removed from the bus and then attendance issues start because the parents can’t get the kid to school. So… I would want to see some kind of barrier that demonstrates parental commitment to the school of choice. That’s basically what we have with our traditional, optional and magnet programs.

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          • Why not take at least part of the idea from the old catholic schools of a generation ago Dress code could be solid dark color pants shirt skirt or dress The latter to the knee.
            No ad logo visible anywhere (also saves parents a ton of money as logo wear costs a lot more)
            Of course the old catholic schools got discipline by literally saying if you don’t behave go will send you to hell. But they did have a lot better discipline, but today wrapping on the knuckles with a ruler would not go which reports say nuns 70 years ago often did.

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