CURE Policy Briefing | September 2019
- The public school system is controlled by government bureaucrats and unions.
- We know that the key to the success of our great American economy is freedom and competition.
- It is impossible to consider our nation free when parents have no choice regarding how to educate their children. We need education choice.
What is it?
Education choice is the idea that parents should be able to choose where to send their children to school and is also called “Education Freedom.” The call for education choice impacts approximately 50.4 million students enrolled in public schools across America and their parents.
According to the Department of Education, there are another 5.2 million students who will attend K-12 private schools. In other words, around 90 percent of America’s children attend a taxpayer funded government school to which they are assigned because of where they happen to live.
Although constitutionally, the jurisdiction of the federal government in education is limited, and should stay this way, there are still several active measures that the federal government can take to advance education freedom in America. Among these measures are:
- Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 provides for federal funds to school districts which are earmarked to help low-income students. Currently about $14 billion of federal funds go to school districts for this purpose. These funds should be made available to low-income students to use at any public or private school of their choice. This idea was first proposed in the legislation introduced by Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in 2015.
- Permit dollar for dollar federal tax credits for contributions that provide scholarships to low-income children to attend any school of their choice.
- The Secretary of Education and the Department of Education should be used as a bully pulpit to promote education freedom in America.
Why does it make a difference?
When we talk about education, it’s important to be thinking about what our goals are. What are we trying to convey and achieve in what we call education?
One thing is clear. There is a very direct connection between education and earning power.
The first chart is a summary of this picture, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The second chart illustrates where blacks and whites stand, for those over age 25, regarding education achievement, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although high school graduation rates between Blacks and whites have significantly closed, it still is the case that Blacks are graduating high school with deficient skills in reading and math and that far fewer Blacks than whites are moving on to higher education.
This has meaningful implications in earning power.
In 2017, the United States Census reported the median Black household income was $40,245 compared to the national average of $61,372. In that same report, the Black poverty rate was reported at 21.2 percent compared to the national average of 12.3 percent.
The Program for International Student Assessment (“PISA”) is done every three years and measures achievement of students around the world in three areas – math, reading, and science.
How does the United States fare against other nations in the world?
In science, out of 70 countries measured, the United States finished 26. The average score of the major industrialized nations is 493 and the U.S. score is 496.
In reading, the United States finished 24 out of 70. The average U.S. score was 497 compared with 493 of the major industrialized nations.
In math, the United States finished 40 out of 70. The average U.S. score was 470 compared to the average of the major industrialized nations score of 490.
Given that the United States is one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, these mediocre results of our children on international science, reading, and math tests, if not shameful, is certainly something we should not feel proud about.
If anything is crystal clear, it’s that there is significant room for improvement regarding how we are educating our children.
It should be clear that K-12 education in the United States is far from what it should or could be. As a nation we are underperforming by international standards.
And low-income Americans are particularly underserved by our approach to education.
What is the problem?
One obvious place to look is in our public-school system where there is a government monopoly.
The public-school system is controlled by government bureaucrats and unions and here is how Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman described the situation in an article he wrote almost 35 years ago in 1983:
“The true customers of the public schools – parents and children – have come to exercise less and less influence over the schools as the schools have become more and more centralized and bureaucratic. When school districts were numerous and small, parents could exercise considerable influence. A superintendent or principal who misjudged the “merit” of teachers – in the eyes of consumers – would not have remained in this position for long.
“The situation has changed drastically in the past half century. The number of school districts declined from 130,000 to 16,000; classroom teachers from 96 percent of the total instructional staff to 86 percent; the fraction of school funds coming from local government, from 83 percent to 43 percent. Schools are now run by professional bureaucrats. Monopoly and uniformity have replaced competition and diversity. Consumers of schooling have little to say. Control by producers has replaced control by consumers.”
Founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, said:
“The unions are the worst thing that happened to education because it is not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can’t teach, and administrators run the place, and nobody can be fired. It’s terrible.”
We know that the key to the success of our great American economy is freedom and competition. Competition is what produces excellence.
How can it be that in a place where excellence is possibly more important than anywhere else – in educating our children – we don’t have freedom and competition?
It is impossible to really talk about education without being clear regarding what education is.
As we talk about test scores and incomes, we are clearly thinking about education as the means to acquire knowledge critical for going into the world and earning a living.
But where do we acquire the knowledge that clarifies in the mind of a young person the purpose of his or her life, the values and virtues that will carry them through their life and its inevitable vicissitudes?
A great irony, possibly more accurately called a tragedy, is that with the obsession of recent years to drag any vestige of religion from public life in general, and out of our schools in particular, we have smothered the source of the very oxygen that fuels the essence of what education is about.
Where does a young person learn about the principles of personal behavior? Of family? Of marriage?
Alexis de Tocqueville is widely recognized as one of the greatest, maybe the greatest, commentator on America and what it is about.
Here’s what Tocqueville had to say about education in his great book Democracy in America, published in 1835. Talking about township laws, he says:
“But it is by the prescriptions relative to public education that, from the beginning, one sees revealed in the full light of day the original character of American civilization.”
“It being one chief project,” says the law, “of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from knowledge of the scriptures….” There follow the provisions that create schools in all townships and oblige the inhabitants, under penalty of heavy fines, to tax themselves to support them. In the most populous districts, high schools are founded in the same manner. Municipal magistrates must see to it that parents send their children to schools; they have the right to levy fines on those who refuse to; and if the resistance continues, society, then putting itself in place of the family, takes possession of the child, and takes away from the parents the rights that nature gave them, but which they so poorly knew how to use. The reader will doubtless have remarked the preamble of these ordinances: in America, it is religion that leads to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom.”
We learn from Tocqueville that at the core of the idea of education in the America he traveled in and researched in the early nineteenth century was religion. Yet, this is exactly what has been systematically banned from our public schools today.
What is left?
Nature abhors a vacuum and it is not true that with the removal of religion from American public life and American public education we are left with neutrality. No way.
What we have done is exchange the values and virtues of Christian upbringing for the values of secular humanism.
There are some 3.1 million teachers in America’s public schools. About half of them belong to unions.
The largest teachers’ union in America, the National Education Association, boasts 3 million members. The second largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, boasts 1.6 million members.
Although all of these 4.6 million members of these two giant teachers’ unions are not teachers, most are and they are all involved in one way or another, with our public education system.
What values do these teachers’ unions convey?
Here is the statement of then-NEA president Dennis Van Roekel following the Supreme Court ruling finding the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional:
“What we have witnessed today is a major milestone in American history – a monumental decision and a huge step forward for civil rights. As an educator, I cannot help but be moved by the thought that all the children and students we serve whose families will now be made whole. … The fight for social justice goes on, and because of what we do and who we serve, we will always be on the front line of this battlefield.”
So here we have the head of the 3-million-member strong National Education Association, America’s largest teachers’ union, committing his organization to the ongoing fight against traditional marriage.
How about the American Federation of Teachers?
Here is AFT president Randi Weingarten in a statement on Where We Stand:
“…..educators and policymakers must do more than ensure that schools are safe for LGBTQ students and staff. The school environment should be such that everyone feels affirmed and respected. The articles in the following pages about Gay-Straight Alliances and other forms of faculty and peer support show effective ways schools can promote the social, emotional, physical, and academic well-being of LGBTQ students. Public schools often lead the way for the broader society in modeling inclusiveness and pluralism.”
And here is AFT’s Resolution supporting Planned Parenthood, the nation’s number one provider of abortions:
“RESOLVED, that the American Federation of Teachers stands with Planned Parenthood and the millions who depend on its healthcare services, including contraception…and legal, safe abortions…
RESOLVED, that the AFT condemns the decades-long assault on Planned Parenthood by anti-abortion groups that demand barriers to reproductive health care and make it as difficult as possible for women to access the health care they need…
RESOLVED, that the AFT will call upon all its state affiliates, locals, and members to urge their legislators, both state and federal, to stand up for women’s health and defend, not defund, Planned Parenthood.”
The United States is a free country. Our citizens should and must be free to live the lives they want according to their values as they see the world.
But what we have here is not freedom but a travesty.
Why should parents be forced to send their children to public schools whose teaching and administrative staffs represent these kinds of values.
How can we call America a free country when public funded schools monopolize education that 90 percent of our children are forced to receive and advocate values that stand against the truths of the traditional family, traditional marriage, and the Sanctity of Life? At the same time, we tolerate a situation in which students attending these schools are prohibited from praying, from seeing a public display of the Ten Commandments, and from learning any values and rules whose authority comes from a biblical text?
It should be of particular concern to everyone who cares about the wholesale failure that is taking place in raising educational achievement of our low-income Black children, when these children are forced to attend schools where teachers and staff are sympathetic to and promote the very values that are devastating our black communities.
Seventy-two percent of Black children are now growing up in single parent homes. The last thing these children need is to attend a school that devalues the importance of traditional marriage.
Whereas Black women represent 13 percent of the population of women in America, they account for one third of our abortions. Planned Parenthood places their clinics to assure that they are easily accessible by low-income Black women.
The last thing Black America needs is for Black parents to be forced to send their child to a school where teachers and staff are sympathetic to the cold, murderous, and racist mission of Planned Parenthood.
It is impossible to consider our nation free when parents have no choice regarding how to educate their children.
We need education choice.
Education Choice – How Does It Work?
The Education Choice movement really didn’t get started until the late 1990s and the number of students taking advantage of these programs still represents just a small fraction of those attending public schools with no alternative available.
There is one core principle to the idea of education choice. That is, working Americans pay taxes that finance public education. These are both state and federal taxes. These taxpayer funds finance our public education system. It is not the law that parents sending their child to a public school. But generally, it is higher income individuals who choose to bypass public schools and send their children to private schools because all those that do this pay twice. They pay for public schools via taxes and then they pay again to cover the tuition of private schools.
Individuals of more modest circumstances cannot afford to do this. The only education option available to them is public schools. The various ideas to make education choice available are ideas to find ways to put funds into the hands of parents of more modest circumstances so that they can afford private tuition. These funds are made available either by direct contributions from individuals or businesses or through ways to re-direct public funds from taxpayers and make these funds available to individuals to pay for a private school.
Here the summary of alternative programs delivering education choice directly from The ABCs of School Choice, published by EdChoice, a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is advancing choice in education.
Types of Private School Choice
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public school district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds in government- authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds – often distributed to families via debit card – can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public-school courses and private services.
Vouchers give parents the freedom to choose a private school for their children, using all or part of the public funding set aside for their children’s education. Under such a program, funds typically expended by a school district would be allocated to a participating family in the form of a voucher to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s private school, including both religious and non-religious options.
Tax-credit scholarships allow taxpayers to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to non-profits that provide private school scholarships. Eligible taxpayers can include both individuals and businesses. In some states, scholarship-giving nonprofits also provide innovation grants to public schools and/or transportation assistance to students choosing alternative public schools.
Individual Tax Credits and Deductions
Individual tax credits and deductions allow parents to receive state income tax relief for approved educational expenses, which can include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation.
Other Types of School Choice
Charter schools are independently run public schools exempt from many rules and regulations in exchange for increased accountability. Typically, if the charters receive more applications than they have open seats, they must accept students based on a lottery. Families do not need to use ESAs, vouchers, or tax-credit scholarships to pay to enroll their children in charters schools as these schools are already publicly funded.
A magnet school is a public school that offers specialized curricula and programs not available to traditional neighborhood public schools. Magnets are designed to attract students with a common interest or skillset, and students must apply and be accepted to enroll. Families do not need to use ESAs, vouchers, or tax-credit scholarships to pay to enroll their children in the magnet schools as these schools are already publicly funded.
Inter/Intra-District Public School Choice
Sometimes referred to as open enrollment inter- and intra-district choice laws allow families to choose traditional public schools other than the ones the government assigned based on their ZIP codes. Intra-district choice allows families to choose from among more than one public school within their assigned district. Inter-district choice allows families to send their children to any traditional public school in their resident state or a defined region. Typically, these open enrollment options still allow public schools to give enrollment preference to students within their assigned district lines.
Homeschooling is an alternative form of education for children outside of public or private schools, typically within their own homes. Homeschooling is regulated differently from state to state.
Online learning allows students to work with their curriculum and teacher over the Internet – in combination with, or in place of, traditional classroom learning. Online schools can be public or private. Families may also use some educational choice options, such as ESAs and vouchers, to pay for online and virtual schooling.
Customized learning is unique to every child. As an example, some students might use ESA or course choice programs to mix courses from public schools with privately tutored classes at home, online course, special education therapies and work-study internship. The possibilities are endless, especially as new innovations in learning continue to emerge.
Generally speaking, Town Auditioning allows students who live in towns that don’t have district public schools to receive their per-pupil education tax dollars to pay tuition at a neighboring town’s public school or a private school of their choice – sometimes even across state lines of families who live close to state borders. This type of school choice functions much like a school voucher, and only a handful of rural states in the northeast use it.
How many students are now in school choice programs?
According to EdChoice, there are now approximately 446,000 students across the nation using either ESAs, vouchers, or tax-credit scholarships.
There are now 2.5 million students learning in charter schools across the nation, with another one million on waiting lists.
Data from the Department of Education indicates that around 1.7 million children across the nation are being homeschooled.
Given the 50.4 million students in K-12 public education in the United States, only a small fraction has the opportunity to exercise the very basic freedom of choosing where to go to school.
Who opposes education choice?
On the frontline opposing education choice are the teachers’ unions.
Here’s what the NEA has to say:
“NEA opposes vouchers because they divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students.
Teachers, parents, and the general public have long opposed private school tuition vouchers, especially when funds for vouchers compete for funds for overall improvements in America’s public schools….”
And here’s AFT president Randi Weingarten in Where We Stand:
“…..tuition vouchers and tax credits – and private and for-profit charter schools – actively destabilize our public schools. They can – and many do – because private schools do not follow federal civil rights laws. They drain funds from public schools and increase racial and social segregation. …..And after decades of experiments with voucher programs, the research is clear. They fail most of the children they purportedly are intended to benefit children who are disproportionately black, brown, and poor.”
Let’s consider the points raised by these unions.
Their main complaint is that education choice programs threaten budgets and funding of public schools. In other words, it’s about money.
So, let’s look at the question of money.
In an article entitled “What Matters Most for Student Achievement,” which appeared in the journal Education Next 2016, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University wrote:
“There now appears to be a general consensus that how money is spent is much more important than how much is spent…..providing more funds to a typical school district without any change in incentives and operating rules is unlikely to lead to systematic improvement in student outcomes.”
And, in fact, Hanushek reports that from 1955 to 2013, per-pupil spending increased fourfold, the number of students per teacher over the same period dropped from 27 to 16, and yet scores in reading and math were virtually unchanged.
Despite the very mediocre performance of American students in international competition, “expenditures per pupil in the United States exceed those of nearly every other country in the world,” according to Hanushek.
After a half a century of poor minority children trapped in public schools with failing test scores today, showing no improvement over the last 50 years, it is simply shameless to defend the status quo. One could legitimately argue that ANY change is worth trying because the status quo is guaranteed demonstrated failure.
Star Parker is President of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education and host of the weekly television show “CURE America with Star Parker.”