We are forty years from a major American education system status report warning that if we did not take serious steps to reform our schools, we would be a “nation at risk.” Since that time, teachers, school administrators, educational policy wonks, and policymakers, and even several “education presidents,” have offered major reforms that could change the direction of teaching/learning outcomes, which were falling. Entrepreneurial saviors using money to reform the system, such as Bill and Melinda Gates and foundations big and small, have had to admit to sobering results in student and overall school cultural change, especially in our public schools. 

While schools are mostly run at the local level, Washington has not been idle in trying to change the direction of student achievement in American schools. George H. W. Bush gave major attention to boosting student performance with six goals for improving graduation and literacy rates; student achievement; school readiness; and the elimination of drugs and violence in schools. Bill Clinton launched a Goals 2000 initiative drawing from state and local success programs to reward schools that made “systematic reform of K-12 education.” It focused on testing reading and mathematics skills to a defined set of standards. 

George W. Bush created the mantra type program “No Child Left Behind” that not only focused on student outcomes but gave major incentives for state and school district accountability. Washington policymakers have learned that no matter how enthusiastic they are in speaking about and funding federal initiatives to improve our schools, state and local authorities will go their own way in managing schools. 

So, what makes a “good school?” 

In their 1990 book Politics, Markets & America’s Schools John Chubb and Terry Moe for the Brookings Institute undertook a robust look at schools across the country and concluded that the variables that make for good schools are those that support innovative school leaders, allow for a high level of parental involvement, and competition — including parental school choice. The combination of these variables called for local, generally autonomous schools, avoiding centralized control from large distant boards, state officials, and the federal government. 

Their work rocked the educational establishment. They noted that progress in reversing the downward trend to student achievement was not about poor students and bad teachers, but “the system itself” was the barrier. The bureaucratic, distant, and obstinate centralized control design stymies our public schools to move out of their lack of achievement funk. 

Naturally, among these seminal reports and school reform initiatives, faculty and researchers from schools of education, foundations, nonprofit institutes and centers, and think tanks offered ideas on how to improve American schools, that were clearly falling behind other nations. While there is a myriad of ideas on what to do about elementary and secondary schooling from teacher preparation to a host of pedagogical approaches, to curriculum fads, to extending school hours or eliminating summer vacation, to when to start and end the school day, and funding, the back-to-basics formula still holds merit. High-performing schools are those with outstanding leaders, challenging teachers, purposeful curriculum, high expectations of students, agreed upon values, and high parental involvement in their children’s schooling. 

As with the gestation of any major idea, historians will argue about who is the founder of the school choice movement. Depending on your definition of school choice, alluding to school choice may not be a new idea for families, but as a major education reform movement in the US it is fair to say that it began in the late 1980s. Thomas Sowell, a highly prolific writer, commentator, and educator who has worked in all three sectors, published a recent treatise on the virtues and the vices school choice attracts in Charter Schools and Their Enemies. 

Public policies for giving parents choice to where they send their children to school has taken several measures such as having them enroll in a government sponsored charter school, giving them tax credits for sending their children to a non-government school, scholarship programs to boost support of parents sending them to private schools, having a family’s tax dollars “follow the students” to whatever school they choose, and even sending them to a religious school. 

Regardless of what type of student is sent to what type of school and how much money the family can use for their children’s education, school choice has received major and enduring pushback from teachers’ unions and a significant number of public policy makers and government officials. 

Enduring arguments against any type of school choice program are: 

  • School choice takes money away from government-sponsored schools, some of which need more money as it stands.
  • Students and their families will abandon poor performing schools.
  • Giving resources to religious schools violates separation of church and state. 
  • School choice creates or exasperates racially and economically segregated schools. 
  • School choice invariably will take the “good” high performing students and caring families away from established public schools. 

Policy makers understandably want to know if school choice programs, in any form, “work,” i.e., are students’ academic performances any better. From the first set of reports, it has been an iterative “Yes it does; no it doesn’t” volley. Aside from the important academic performance, parents remind policymakers that their choice of school is not just academic performance. They send their children to non-government sponsored schools for other reasons such as school safety, avoiding teacher indoctrination, location of school, academic and co-curricular or extra-curricular offerings, and wanting a school that matches the norms, mores, and values of the family. 

While this debate continues as either an academic, legal, or philosophical question, what is true is that parents of children who need the most help in schools, and who are in many cases minorities, want school choice. 

Among the many school reform programs, approaches, initiatives, and policies at all levels (federal, state, and local), it is fair to say that at the least school choice has many elements of what education researchers say makes for good schools: local control, high student expectations, rigorous and purposeful curricula, teacher involvement, competition, and expected and welcomed parental involvement in their children’s education. The bad news is we now see that those who influence the workings of government-sponsored schools are going in the opposite direction of the elements that make for good schools. 

Stephen F. Gambescia is professor and director of an Interprofessional Doctor of Health Science program at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions. His research and writing areas are in macro public policy issues.

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