National School Choice Week: Five Themes that Helped Me Better Understand the Debate

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

National School Choice Week took place from January 25 to January 31 this year, and generated more than 11,000 events over the country. The Franklin Center hosted its Amplify Choice conference on January 30-31, a conference I took part in.

A Good EducationTo be honest, before joining the Franklin Center conference, my knowledge on school choice in the United States was basic and revolved more around the options available (public, charter, and private schools, homeschooling, vouchers, etc.) than the debate itself. I knew the options available in the United States were many compared to the country I come from, France. I saw America as much freer in that area. I did not know the extent of the opposition to letting children be educated outside the public school system, nor the opposition to have a education system that let schools compete.

The talks I attended during the conference, the schools we visited, and the discussions we had with students and parents were certainly eye-opening. Five key themes struck me as particularly important, not necessarily because they were extensively covered (or absent) in the national debate on school choice, but because they naturally surfaced in all the discussions as key to understanding why school choice is crucial to families and the future of American children.

  1. Community

Students at Archbishop Carroll High School, a private, catholic school in Washington DC, stressed over and over again that the reason why they loved their school was because of the community it enabled them to be part of, a community that they felt would give them more chances to succeed. This included more interactions with teachers who knew their students and cared for them, and students that were focused on their success, knowing what they wanted to do in the next 10-15 years.

On the other hand, there are cases when the community factor isn’t necessarily playing in favor of the kids, when, for example, parents stick with a school district that is clearly failing their children—perhaps previous generations in the family as well—hence often preventing the school district in question from any form of self-analysis and improvements.

  1. Raising the bar

The school choice movement is often portrayed as the road to privatizing the school system and our children’s education for the sake of competition and money. Leaving aside the partisan and hypocritical nature of these assertions, competing with public schools means fighting a monolithic, established mammoth that so far had all the favors government force can provide. Alternatives to public schools had to prove that they did as good a job, if not a better job, than public schools.

To the benefit of our children, they often aim at being the best option. Raising the bar is an expression that popped up in the discussions. They raise the bar not just on how the school performs but also in terms of children’s goals, and their families’ involvement in their children’s path to success. Charter and private schools are often more exigent on discipline; they encourage their kids to aim high, and make them understand results come with hard work; they involve family members; they expect their teachers to 100% part of the success of their kids.

  1. Competition

Think about the 20-mile radius around your home where you can shop for groceries. Depending on whether you are in an urban or rural area, you might have more or less options. Suppose just one supermarket was available to satisfy everyone’s grocery needs. There would be no diversity to satisfy different people with different tastes. Do you think one single option could appropriately serve every single person in a 20-mile radius? Do you think your only option would pay better attention to your needs if you couldn’t go anywhere else as an alternative? Would you consider moving as your only option to have alternatives normal?

We find it natural to have a variety of options where to shop to satisfy our vital need for food. Yet, when education is concerned, many parents and children, especially the poorest, have no choice but the traditional public school in their zip code. Isn’t education of children – and as a consequence their future – at least as important as what they eat?

Competition brings different options for different people with different needs, including in education. It also serves as a powerful safeguard against those that could care less how they perform. In fact, no competition means your only option does not have to care: you are forced to stick with this only option, as bad as it may be, so why would the option bother?

While detractors of competition point the finger at “schools for profit,” competition means that if a school fails to perform at a satisfactory level, they might lose the kids… and they might eventually have to close down. On the contrary, if parents only have one school where to send their kids, what can they do if the school fails the kids?

Not surprisingly, the best performing schools tend to welcome competition as a way for every school to strive to bring better education to children, a way for them to raise the bar.

  1. Accountability

Competition naturally leads us to what seems to be the biggest concern regarding alternatives to traditional public schools: accountability. If you are to let taxpayer money follow a kid to alternatives to public schools, you have to be sure this alternative is held accountable: is the kid learning what he needs to learn?

According to Gina Mahony, Senior Vice President, Government Relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in the past 5 years, every year, 400 to 500 schools have opened while 150 to 200 underperforming charter schools have been closed.

The DC Public Charter School Board oversees openings and closures of charters schools. In DC, by law a charter school lasts 15 years. If results aren’t satisfactory, they can be closed at any time. According to DC Public Charter School Board Deputy Director Naomie DeVeaux, the board tests schools performance on the basics: reading and writing English; math. If the school offers a special curriculum, such as bilingualism for example, they also check that the school actually does what it claims to do but results will be expected on the basics first.

  1. Personal stories

Children, and indirectly their parents, are the audience and beneficiary of early education (in market terms, there are the clients or customers). They spend most of their days, 5 days a week at school, and what they retain from these days will help them forge their future. So why aren’t we focusing on their experience? They are the best suited to tell us the difference transferring from a traditional public school to a charter or private school made in their life and education, how it helped or not, how long a commute they are willing to take to go to a particular school, and what kind of accountability they expect and receive from their options.

My next post will focus on a few alternatives to traditional public schools I had the opportunity to visit, and what students and parents had to tell about them.

Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility) and works in public policy. She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.

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