In defense of education choice

The world – and Utah – isn’t the same as it once was. Education shouldn’t be, either.

Over the last 10 years, our society has acquired a taste for customizing everything, as well as the innovations to do so. There is also a growing discomfort with our education system: a stagnant, highly regulated, one-size-fits-all, grade-by-age system that misses the mark for too many students and needlessly frustrates teachers out of the profession, creating teacher shortages.

Keep in mind that the critiques of education listed above have happened while federal education spending has increased nearly fivefold over the past 30 years, and while almost half the entire Utah state budget is spent on education. The issue is more than money, so any proposed solution focused solely on money is no solution at all.

Are we willing yet to consider that the problems in education may stem from our philosophy and approach to it?

While some heroic and innovative leaders are working miracles to overcome the problems caused by our approach to public education, the system needs improvement.

But improving education requires a willingness to ask some tough question about our beliefs and to change our thinking.

We will have to believe that each student deserves as many options as necessary to meet their needs, that education is about the student and not the system, and that there are good reasons to support education choice.

First, we must believe that students deserve as many education options as necessary to meet their unique learning needs. Education choice is a philosophy in line with this belief. It seeks to offer students learning options and frees them to pursue their own educational success. It includes traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, flex education spending programs for families, homeschooling – all of them have their place in a system designed to serve the needs of children, rather than requiring children to serve the needs (such as administrative ease) of the system.

Intuitively we understand that kids are unique and that they will need different things in order to succeed. It is problematic when we seek to limit options for children for reasons of political gain or an ideological commitment to our preferred flavor of schooling. Let’s give parents and students the opportunity to make their own choices.

By practical necessity, nature’s design and constitutional protection, education belongs to parents, who choose how to educate their kids. Teaching and learning first exist at that basic familial level. At the same time, our social obligation to each other – as reflected in the state constitution – calls for a system of freely available public schools. This constitutional provision requires the state to create this option, but only our own lack of imagination or ideological rigidity precludes broad choices for parents within that system and beyond.

Second, we must believe that education is about the student, not the system. And more specifically, we should be careful not to only talk about “students” in the plural; we should see each of our 644,476 public school children as “the student,” with important, unique, irreplaceable potential. If we can get this focus correct, we will be more likely to reject clunky policies that look good on paper but fail to meet the child’s learning needs.

The problem with one-size-fits-all policies is frequently apparent at the federal level. For instance, the failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stemmed in part from the demand to achieve the same unrealistic outcome, with no practical consideration of the unique needs of states, communities and individual children. NCLB waivers and federal competitive grants that pushed additional one-size-fits-all policies on states – like Common Core and teacher evaluations – exacerbated this failure.

It is not enough to give students access to one uniform education system. There’s no inherent educational value in that, and it is destined to fail to meet the learning needs of some (likely many) children. Instead we should commit ourselves to crafting options that increase the chance of a student meeting their potential.

Third, we should be careful about ginning up fear for political or ideological ends. These approaches to education are committed to viewing public education in rigid, moralistic terms – attacking the “evil” school policies and showing devotion to the “good” policies. Education choice is simply a commitment to creating practical and valuable learning options for the individual child to use, whatever they may be and whatever they may choose.

In addition to these beliefs, we must recognize scientific realities: The full body of research on any given education topic rarely paints a clear-cut picture of what works. Education research is far more nuanced than most want it to be, and at best it speaks in terms of generalities. It does a disservice to public discourse, and to the children who will be served by it, not to show the other side.

Education choice allows for a variety of options – that’s the point – and these options sometimes earn mixed reviews. Some choice policies are newer and may not have research answers yet available. These are real limitations. But while we are recently hearing the negative side of changing our course in education – often in response to a growing interest in it – the approach of offering increased choices also shows positive signs of improving outcomes for students and teachers.

For example, analysis of random-assignment studies of voucher programs finds modest improvements in reading or math scores, but while yearly gains are modest, the effect adds up over time. Research shows that families that use flex education spending programs find impressive parental satisfaction (71 percent of Arizona parents reported being “very satisfied,” 19 percent were “satisfied,” and 10 percent were “somewhat satisfied,” with none reporting any dissatisfaction). The most rigorous studies looking at charter schools’ impact on their traditional counterparts have generally shown modest increases in achievement in nearby traditional public schools. Some research even suggests that increased education choice would improve prospects for teachers and lessen teacher shortages.

How we approach education says a lot about how we view human beings, and we are past due for a change in how we think about this topic within our current system. All students deserve access to the best education. And the phrase “all students” encompasses thousands of unique individuals that are each “the student.” To reach each of them in meaningful ways and in practical terms, we have to consider genuine, robust education choice.

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.