January 26, 2012

School Choice Week: the best answer to a multiple choice problem

By School Choice Week: the best answer to a multiple choice problem

What is the goal of School Choice Week?  The official slogan of School Choice Week is: “Shining a spotlight on effective education options for every child.”  In essence, then, the purpose is to bring attention to two glaring realities of our nation’s traditional public education system: 1) it has been failing; and 2) we need to change it.

Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

How to change it, however, is the key question. The proponents of School Choice Week believe that the best option is to give students and their parents more educational choices for their children, by allowing them to leave a school that is failing their child and enroll them elsewhere, usually in a private school or public charter school that is performing better.   While there is even debate among those who favor some sort of choice as to which is the best system to employ to allow this (through tax deductions or vouchers, for example) the central divide on our current education problem seems to be between those who think that some form of choice is the best alternate route, and those who believe that the current system would only work if we just pumped more money into the existing system and tweaked it a bit.

Before delving into these two visions, however, a few things should be noted about the school choice issue.  First, the school choice issue really matters the most at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  Well-off families always have choices–at least, more choices than poorer families–whether that is sending their children to private schools or choosing where they want to live based upon the quality of the school district that serves that residence.  The school choice debate then, notwithstanding paranoid conspiracy theories to the contrary, revolves around how to help those in the lowest economic strata to escape the dead-end school trap they may often find themselves in.

Second, those who oppose choice frequently seem to resent the fact that advocates for choice would create a two-tiered system of those who end up in good schools and those who end up with the educational dregs . . . without acknowledging, candidly and frankly, that that is the system that already exists.  The only difference is, right now, those who currently must settle for the educational dregs often have no ability to pursue any alternative.  And since throwing more money at the problem seems to have had no empirical effect whatsoever on the quality of education being offered to children, offering school choice, while it may not be a panacea, at least has the virtue of providing individual families a viable route out of the particular dead-end system with which they are faced.

But the key issue behind the school choice movement is not often discussed openly in the debate:  since money is obviously not what is the key factor in educational results, what is?  There is no easy or pat answer, but several of them seem to be invoked repeatedly:  apathetic teachers, school officials, or administrators; school environments where discipline is poor or entirely lacking–or where school officials have no ability or power to impose discipline; uncaring and/or absent parents; bloated educational bureaucracies and processes; poor teacher training; lack of teacher or student accountability; etc.  The list is probably endless and infinitely varied, depending upon the neighborhood, the school, the school system, and the demographics, and a school that may be suffering in one of these areas may not be suffering in another–yet the results are generally the same:  children are not learning, or, worse, they are learning the wrong things, such as gang behavior, bullying, and drug use.

The fact is, while there may be perfectly good ways to address some of these problems directly and to incrementally improve our current system on a piecemeal basis, the strength of the school choice option is that it lets these problems sort themselves out:  failing schools are simply allowed to fail, and successful schools are allowed to succeed.

Historically, the public school system is perhaps the most glaring example of a failed government bailout.  On the theory that the system has been “too big to fail,” the only response to the crisis seemed to be that teachers unions and school districts demanded more money, as though raising teacher salaries or reducing classroom size could somehow resolve the more serious problems that schools face that truly impact learning, and which more money, alone, does nothing to alleviate.  Under this regime, none of the underlying and more thorny causes of failure were ever talked about, let alone seriously addressed.   As Ronald Reagan once noted:

Secretary [of Education William] Bennett makes, I think, an interesting analogy.  He says if you serve a child a rotten hamburger in America, federal, state, and local agencies will investigate you, summon you, close you down, whatever.  But if you provide a child with a rotten education, nothing happens, except that you’re liable to be given more money to do it with.

Perhaps more pointedly, even if money were relevant to the problems that need addressing, more money has no impact under a system where both failing and successful schools and teachers and school districts are guaranteed a steady and roughly equivalent stream of tax dollars and students.  Where there are no penalties for failure or rewards for success, the results are predictable, as they are in every “egalitarian” regime that lacks either positive or negative incentives:  performance continually spirals downward.

The fact is, school choice is not fundamentally an “anti” public school proposition, and neither is it a sure-fire guarantee of success.  But school choice does have one overriding virtue:  it creates the incentives and disincentives that are currently lacking in the traditional public school system.  When public schools no longer have captive money and captive students, they have no choice but to solve the real problems impacting performance . . . or close down.  Just as building a better mousetrap forces the old mousetrap-makers to innovate, adapt, cut costs, and do whatever they need to do to remain competitive and viable, school choice forces public schools to address the underlying problems that they have heretofore lacked the will or the motivation to overcome.  It is true that school choice does not solve the problems that exist in our educational system, but it virtually guarantees that those problems will finally get the attention they have so sorely needed.

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