Want to reform education? Break up the public school monopoly
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How much proof of its effectiveness does school choice need to show before it finally takes hold?

The answer should be “none”; parents and children ought to be free to choose whatever education system they want, regardless of how worthwhile other people perceive it to be. But in the super-regulated society we live in, we’re often forced to rely on our freedoms earning approval before they can become policy and we can go about exercising them.

School choice, though, seems as though it can’t do anything right. A new paper by researchers at the University of Arkansas’ (UArk) Department of Education Reform finds private school voucher programs improve student outcomes around the world. The study’s monumental findings seem to put a decisive exclamation point on the education debate, a “drop the mic” moment, so to speak, for school choice.

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Yet researchers have produced similar studies before and still widespread school choice remains elusive. Why? Because policymakers are putting politics before proof, and our children are suffering for it. In the UArk study, researchers compared Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores recorded in 62 countries from 2000 to 2012. (PISA is an international test assessing the academic skills of 15-year-old students.)

 

“We find evidence to suggest that increased private schooling leads to improved PISA scores around the world,” the researchers report. “Specifically, our preferred model finds that a ten percentage point increase in the private share of schooling enrollment is associated with a 28 percent standard deviation increase in math, a 24 percent standard deviation increase in reading, and an 18 percent standard deviation increase in science.”

Public schools operate a monopoly, the researchers explain, and because of their immense power, “quality is held down while prices gravitate upwards.” This makes sense, because without competition, government schools have no incentive to cut costs or improve themselves.  “If private schooling is introduced into the system, competitive pressures increase the incentives for both public and private schools to offer the highest-quality education at the lowest cost,” the authors wrote. “Private school choice programs could balance the distribution of power within the school system and families could exercise that power to pressure schools to improve. Moreover, private school choice programs can introduce price differentiation into the system of schooling. Price differentiation can entice new high quality schooling options to enter the market for education and can also communicate valuable information about what is valued by parents and children.”

Put simply, private school programs would make public and private schools better, cheaper, and more accommodating to the needs of families. The UArk paper cites some impressive data and makes some very compelling arguments, and as much as they might want to, not even public school teachers can fairly argue the researchers didn’t “show their work.” 

However, despite the substantial evidence on its side and the millions of parents and students yearning for it, significant, widespread school choice is still just a dream for many. This isn’t because politicians don’t believe the available evidence is valid; they’re just ignoring it, and in some cases, deliberately putting their own self-interests before those of children.

In 2012, nine scholars and analysts signed off on an essay for Education Week that declared school choice programs indicated positive impacts on student achievement, “student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values.”

The scholars further agreed, “Even under conservative assumptions about such questions as state and local budget sensitivity to enrollment changes, the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative.”

That was five years ago! Since then, evidence that school choice works has emerged at a near-overwhelming pace. Meanwhile, school choice adversaries take a cue from Chicken Little, announcing hysterically any form of education choice will destroy public education as we know it.

School choice legislation continues to advance forward at a snail’s pace and is often defeated by liberal opponents who carry political weight. That’s because our education system isn’t about the children at all. If it were about the children, policymakers would have already listened to the indisputable evidence proving the value of school choice many years ago.

Unfortunately, the bank accounts and political clout of corrupt politicians and their cronies rank higher on the priority lists of too many of our elected officials than what is good for families or our nation. Parents, responsible teachers, and students need to take matters into their own hands and demand real education reform before another generation is forced to suffer through this largely broken, archaic education model.

Teresa Mull is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.