This week is National School Choice Week, a coast-to-coast celebration of the opportunities that educational freedom can offer students and their families. But sadly, although some counties and states have adopted school choice programs, many American students still lack the freedom to decide where to matriculate.
Why? Why is there still opposition to the idea that competition and choice bring greater accountability and value to the education sector? Tragically for students, the protectors of the status quo have manufactured several myths about school choice that paint educational freedom in a false bad light.
It’s time to dispel those myths, one at a time:
Myth #1: School choice will result in racial segregation, taking us back to the oppressive era before Brown vs. Board of Education.
School choice opponents typically claim that giving parents a choice in schools will result not only in racial segregation, but stratification of students by other demographic factors, like income level, race, and religion. First, this myth is a little insulting, since the subtext is that Americans are mostly bigots who want to shield their kids from any kind of diversity.
But most importantly this myth is simply not true. In a review of the empirical evidence on school choice, Greg Forester, Ph.D., finds that among eight studies on racial segregation, seven studies showed that school choice moved students from more segregated schools to less segregated schools. The remaining study showed no visible effect on racial segregation. Notably, no studies have found that school choice results in greater racial segregation.
Actually, it’s not school choice, but the anti-choice status quo that results in segregation, because students are assigned to public schools based on where they live.
Myth #2: Just look at the outcomes… School choice makes kids dumber!
Busted! Often, students who participate in school choice programs actually experience better academic outcomes. Forester points out that eleven of twelve gold-standard, random-assignment studies show participants improved their outcomes. One study showed no effect.
As the education reform group Students First points out, charter schools (one type of school choice option) provide opportunities for traditionally underserved students. Impoverished students or students who are learning English in charter schools have, on average, outperformed their peers who stay in traditional public schools in reading and math.
Ultimately, if a charter school or private school does not serve its students well, it will face the consequences: Because enrollment depends on parental choice, dysfunctional charter schools won’t be able to attract and retain enrollees, and therefore the school will no longer receive the funds necessary to operate.
Myth #3: School choice programs only help religious people since most private schools are affiliated with a religion. Government Madrassahs, here we come!
Of course, many people have legitimate concerns about the mixture of religion and government. In some forms (like vouchers), school choice can result in parents using public tax dollars to send their children to private, religious schools.
Yet this doesn’t need to be a cause for alarm. Fully seventy-six percent of private schools have a religious affiliation, so nonsectarian private options may be limited. But as parents are given more options for choosing their children’s schools, a greater variety of options will develop, including more nonreligious school options. This is how it works in the higher education system: Taxpayers provide support—much like vouchers—for many students who are free to choose schools that have a religious affiliation or not.
As Eugene Volokh has reasoned, we don’t fund our public fire departments with the expectation that they will put out fires only in “secular” places: If a church caught fire, the firemen would use public resources to put out the flames. In the same way, parents should be free to use the public resources assigned to their child to send them to a religious school of their choosing.
Importantly, religious schools have benefits for nonreligious people: Many nonreligious families choose to send their children to religious schools, and a 2011 study from Notre Dame Law School shows that the presence of Catholic elementary schools in urban neighborhoods “appears to suppress social disorder, increase social cohesion, and bolster collective efficacy in these neighborhoods—all findings strongly suggesting that residents’ quality of life decreases when a school closes.”
Myth #4: School choice will destroy the public school system as we know it because it sucks resources away from public schools.
Opponents of school choice argue that it will result in winners and losers: those who take advantage of opportunities to move schools, and those left behind with even scarcer resources due to the drain following exiting students.
This myth has been busted many times: Twenty-two empirical studies have shown that the implementation of school choice programs has improved academic outcomes at public schools. This makes sense: Competition makes everyone better, and holds all schools accountable to students and parents (the consumers). One study has shown no visible effect on public schools, and no studies have shown that school choice actually hurts academic outcomes at traditional public schools.
Myth #5: Most educators are against school choice. Therefore, school choice must be bad for education.
The National Education Association (NEA) is the main union for public school teachers and takes a strong stance against school choice programs.
But in their personal lives, public school teachers are just as likely as other parents to experiment with educational options. A2014 survey from Education Next shows that 26 percent of all parents, and 28 percent of public school teachers, have used or currently used alternatives to their district public school.
In Conclusion: It seems that the only arguments against school choice don’t hold water. School choice programs benefit families, communities, and schools. The implementation of such programs is sure to become much more popular as the myths surrounding race, religion, and student outcomes are continually disproven. This School Choice Week, let’s celebrate by giving more students more choice.
Hadley Heath Manning is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.