The Power to Choose a School

In light of a recent conference and the upcoming Supreme Court case (read AEI’s take), I’ve decided it’s high time to write a little summary of my understanding of and case for school choice. I open with my inspiration for this interest, but if you’re just interested in the meat of the issue, feel free to jump ahead to the “Why Choose?” and “Who Chooses?” sections. Happy reading! 

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Close to Home

My debut in economic research has been centered around two causes very near and dear to my heart: school choice and easing regulations on craft breweries. (Ok, I may be joking a little on the last one.)

Due to moving around as a kid, I’ve also become an unofficial school expert by attending seven different schools prior to college–a mix of public, religious private, and secular college prep–and have tutored and taught in multiple schools myself. Simply put, I love schools and everything they symbolize. Within their sacred walls, we first taste the ever-harvested banquet of literature, music, art, science, music, history, math, and the whole spread of ideas. How can you not be passionate about that?

Furthermore, take a moment to call to mind the most influential people in your life. Chances are, a teacher (or seven) made your list. All this is to say that the importance of a good education cannot be overstated.

Finally, I don’t think that our current public school system is doing an acceptable job at this incredible task. And 79% of Americans agree with me. This isn’t to say that the other options–homeschooling and private schools– are automatically better, but we don’t direct our tax dollars to fund them. In my opinion, public schools should be held to the highest standards as our entire nation backs them with hard-earned dollars. And I very firmly believe that all children should be given the opportunity of a good education, regardless of if their family can afford homeschooling and private institutions or not.

What is School Choice?

This is precisely where the idea of school choice comes in. It’s been my experience that this contentious issue is still misunderstood:

School choice means that the tax dollars originally paid by parents, which will be distributed back to them in the form of public education, should be allowed to be spent on their child’s education at the school they see as best fitting their child’s needs.

Wealthy families can already exercise “school choice” since they can afford to pay for both their child’s seat in public schools (through their tax dollars) as well as the private tuition at a different institution. But this leaves many families unable to access these educational organizations and automatically creates an early rift between the socioeconomic groups. The policy mechanisms of school choice– vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and charter schools— are designed to allow the public tax dollars to follow the children, based upon each family’s choice of educational institution. In a diverse and expanding society such as ours, it is essential that we respect the agency of families to choose how to best educate their children.

Understanding school choice, and specifically charter schools, could not be more relevant (especially since Betsy DeVos has recently been confirmed as Secretary of Education). It could also set you apart– a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 50% of respondents were actually aware of what charter schools are. It is fitting that we begin with the definition (taken from Uncommon Schools):

“A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. The ‘charter’ establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.”

Why Choose?

There are three reasons that I believe school choice, in all forms, is a great thing for our states and our nation. They can be summed up in three words: care, competition, and community. By care, I mean to emphasize that low-income families will be newly empowered to chose their child’s school and thus have an incentive to care after their education more than ever.  Through competition, I am confident that the schools will increasingly become better since no families are forced to attend them, but rather have a choice between more options. Finally, school choice fosters community. As I pointed out in my introduction, the current system of public vs. private schools results in an early and arguably detrimental separation of socioeconomic classes. It means that you’re more likely to learn, play sports, and go over to the houses of friends who are no different from yourself.

All three of these good things currently exist within families and schools, no doubt, but school choice significantly enables the families of your community to choose according to their deepest concern for their children.

Who Chooses?

My latest research with the Institute for Economic Inquiry delves into the “demand-side” of this issue, focusing on just charter schools. I ask: What local organizations, informal institutions, and socioeconomic characteristics do districts that are open charters have in common?

To study this question, I gathered data on every school district in the nation and compiled an estimation equation to display the impact of each important factor on how open a district is to charters, as measured by the number of charter schools and number of students attending charters within that district. You are happily invited to read last semester’s version of the working paper, but for brevity’s sake, here are my main takeaways:

  • Charters are significantly more likely in districts with these types of families:
    • Impoverished
    • Highly educated
    • Urban
    • Highly diverse
  • The proportion of church adherence within a district (a proxy for informal institutions, i.e. religious belief) has a negligible effect on the openness of the district to charters.
  • Districts with a high percentage of the population employed in the educational, health care, or social work services (a rough proxy for the strength of local teachers’ unions) are strongly and significantly opposed to charters.

I once heard a speaker say (pretty positive it was Arthur Brooks… but don’t quote me on this) that the social sciences exist to prove to us what we already know. For how good the empirical evidence is, the main argument in favor of school choice is one of the heart. The power of a great school isn’t that it will fix all the problems of our world, but that it has the potential to change hearts as well as minds.

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