School competition helps children succeed

President Obama, in his State of the Union address last Tuesday, posed this question as well as he exhorted the nation to “win the race to educate our kids” and to “be willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.” He emphasized the role of parents as being primary in the education of their children. 

From Amy Chua’s controversial methods of strict parenting as captured in the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to Kelley Williams-Bolar risking felony for the sake of her children’s education, the motivation of parents to provide what’s best for their children can be strong and relentless. 

Economist Milton Friedman made this same observation when he wrote in 1979 that, “Parents generally have both greater interest in their children's schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.”

At the same time that the Williams-Bolar case was provoking national attention, last week was also National School Choice Week and, therefore, begs the question of whether more choice can benefit parents and the educational system as a whole. 

Giving parents the ability to choose introduces the idea of competition for student enrollment and can prompt schools to deliver better quality goods and services to avoid the threat of profit loss. Increased competition can also act as an accountability measure causing schools to focus on improved educational quality to secure student enrollment. 

According to Harvard University government professor Paul Peterson, who conducted randomized field trials of school vouchers in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., general satisfaction with schools was rated much higher among parents with children in private schools than those who had children in public schools. 

Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, also found in 2006 that schools in Milwaukee, when confronted with more competition from vouchers, improved at faster rates than other schools that were not experiencing competition. 

Public schools in Michigan and Arizona also began improving at faster rates with the competition that ensued with charter schools. Though she acknowledges that it is risky to extrapolate from these “short term results, the long term results found in [her] studies of traditional competition among districts and between public and private schools seem to confirm that competition is in general good for the public schools.” 

Another example of how school choice has been effective is the DC Opportunity Voucher Program, which was created in 2004 to enable qualifying students from low-income families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. It was congressionally mandated to be evaluated by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) before the program was eventually cut. IES results showed that the program raised a student’s probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points, from 70 percent to 82 percent, and that there was an increase in parent satisfaction of student education.

But perhaps the political tides on school choice are changing as Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Joseph Lieberman boldly introduced a bill last Wednesday to reauthorize the Opportunity Voucher program for five years. It would also increase the annual scholarship amount from $7,500 to $8,000 for elementary and middle school students and $12,000 for high school students. 

Maybe the Ohio mother of two was wrong to break the law and her ends did not justify her means, but what other alternatives did she have? In her mind, she was simply doing “what’s necessary to give [her] child a chance to succeed,” as President Obama put it.

Annie Hsiao is the Director of Education Policy at the American Action Forum.