Two things are hard to argue:
- Getting a quality education is important
- Today’s education system fails to deliver a quality education to a wide swath of American students.
As my colleague Mark Perry loves to point out, our world has grown and evolved an incredible amount in recent decades. Unfortunately, our schools have not seen a similar growth trajectory. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. If you could hop in a time machine and travel back 20, 30, or 40 years, our schools wouldn’t look that different. Mostly schools would have a series of classrooms with a single teacher in the front of the room teaching 25 or so students who are roughly the same age, as they do now. Maybe today they have a digital projector where they used to have a chalkboard, but the basic organization and delivery of schooling simply hasn’t changed that much.
Why has this happened?
Put simply, schools haven’t had to evolve like enterprises in competitive markets. If auto manufacturers made the same cars they made in 1974, they’d be out of business. If computer companies still charged thousands of dollars for computers with 64 megabytes of hard drive space, they’d be out of business. But our education system keeps plodding along, year after year, making some improvements in some places at some times, to be sure, but not rising in quality at the same rate as almost any other good or service in our economy.
School choice fundamentally challenges the organizational structure of schools by allowing parents to choose where their child goes to school, supported by public dollars. In most places around the country our schools are geographic monopolies. If your home is zoned for a particular school, you go there, good, bad, or indifferent. People with money move to where there are good schools. Poor people are stuck. This inequality of opportunity shows up in the inequality of results for children across America. It makes it harder for poor students to climb the ladder out of poverty.
A choice-based system encourages schools to compete for students, to differentiate themselves, and to make sure they are meeting their students’ needs. It allows parents to sort into schools that offer the educational program that they think best fits their child. It closes schools that fail to meet students’ needs. It can even, if the program is designed correctly, encourage efficiency and wise stewardship of tax dollars.
This is not to say that school choice is a panacea. There are plenty of poorly designed charter school and voucher programs that fail to create a vibrant marketplace and thus have limited ability to improve the situation. Choice just sets the stage for innovative and entrepreneurial school leaders; it is up to them to make it work. At AEI on Jan 30th, we’re presenting 10 new papers on how to make school choice markets work better. You’re welcome to join us in person at AEI or watch the livestream online. All necessary details are here.
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