Sunday marked the start of National School Choice Week, an annual celebration of education reforms that give parents the power to pick the schools, public or private, that are best for their children.
There’s much to celebrate: There are more than 50 such school choice programs — including school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs — in 25 states serving more than 300,000 children. Furthermore, about half of these programs were enacted in the past five years, which indicates that momentum for school choice is rapidly accelerating. This is not just because school choice works — study after study shows that it improves students’ academic performance, increases parental satisfaction, and forces public schools to improve — but because parents are increasingly demanding it.
School choice is shaking up the public education establishment, but it would be wrong to say that it’s a new, or even radical, idea. After all, if you are the child of middle- or upper-class parents, then it is almost certain that you benefited from school choice. Perhaps your parents chose where to buy a home based on the quality of the local public school. Or perhaps they paid to send you to a private school. In any event, the reason you got a quality education is because your parents were able to afford choices that put you in a school, public or private, that they determined best suited your needs. Your educational fate was not determined solely by the ZIP code into which you were born.
But for children in low-income families, the opposite is true. Their parents can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with good public schools, much less pay tuition at private schools, so these children must attend their assigned public school. If that school is underperforming, there is no way out. Because the school doesn’t have to worry about these children — and the state education dollars that accompany them — ever leaving, it has no economic incentive to improve how it serves them. Parental concerns can be, and all too often are, disregarded with no repercussions to the school’s bottom line.
The common-sense solution to this dilemma is to create school-choice programs that make sure that all parents, including those in low-income families, can pick the public or private school that is best for their children.
But that solution is taboo for teachers’ unions and others in the public education establishment who have grown too comfortable with a failed status quo that depends on limiting parental choice for its survival. This old guard is scared that school choice will end that status quo by shifting power away from them, and toward parents (where it belongs). After all, school choice injects real competition into the K-12 educational system, with the result that poorly performing public schools must shape up in order to retain students — not continue to take their presence for granted.
That is why teachers’ unions and their allies are waging a fierce legal battle to block the advance of school-choice programs. In recent years, they have challenged school-choice programs in Arizona, Indiana and New Hampshire — where they’ve suffered decisive losses — and Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina — where their lawsuits are ongoing, but have suffered big setbacks. (They prevailed in Louisiana, but the state legislature quickly undid their victory.) When more states pass school-choice programs, the unions will no doubt file more lawsuits.
As one of the litigators at the Institute for Justice, which has defended in court all of these programs on behalf of families who benefit from them, my experience in these legal battles has taught me two things:
First, school choice is worth fighting for. The parents we represent have seen their children thrive when placed in an educational environment that best suits their needs.
Second, the unions’ legal onslaught is not a sign of strength, but of desperation. Their lawsuits are often a collection of weak legal claims that are thrown against the wall in the hope that one will stick. While the unions may win the occasional skirmish, they will ultimately lose the legal battle — with the result that school-choice programs will expand to serve more and more families.
So while there is much to celebrate during this National School Choice Week, there will be even more to celebrate in future ones.
• Bert Gall is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is a co-sponsor of National School Choice Week.