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By Siddharth Gundapaneni

There’s no denying the woes of the current American education system. A recent study showed that an abysmal 41% of High School students in Baltimore “earned” below a D average, or a 1.0 Grade Point Average, despite having the third highest funding per student in the nation (yes, you read that right). In Philadelphia, only 14% of fourth graders are considered proficient in reading. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, inflation adjusted spending per student has increased 287% since 1960, yet American education has consistently produced abhorrent outcomes. Policymakers often attribute America’s education failures to lack of funding, but it’s much deeper than that. We need fundamental change in the way our schools are funded, and that is best achieved through school choice.

It’s clear that millions of Americans are trapped within our public school system. Most low-income families simply can’t afford alternatives to public schools. People of color have been disproportionately affected by such policy, and change is needed now. It is unacceptable that wealthy folk are able to send their children to the best schools, while low-income minorities are subjected to inferior education. If we lower the disparity throughout K-12 education, we may even be able to level the playing field when it comes to college admissions.

Furthermore, research indicates that each student learns differently, and that should be embraced, rather than forcing those that are different to conform. Some students learn better in smaller class sizes such as those often given in private schools; others benefit from more hands-on learning present in Montessori classrooms; and many do in fact learn best in public schools. It is therefore imperative that each family be given the choice to make that decision for their children, without having to worry about the financial burden. Right now, if a family desires to attend private school, they must pay for schooling twice: once through property taxes that go to public schools (regardless of whether the child attends or not), and again when paying for private school tuition, something that is unattainable for most low-income families. A school voucher program would be an adequate solution. Funding for schools would still be done through property taxes, but instead of the revenue going straight to public schools, it will follow the child instead. As a society, we must focus on children’s success, rather than prioritizing upholding institutions that have failed us. 

Not only would a school voucher system give more choice to students, but it would also significantly improve the quality of education. Most of the nations that rank above the United States in K-12 education, have some sort of school choice program, or decentralized education system. In a study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Dutch have shown how voucher-based systems display promising results from students due to improved school choice. Equivalent outcomes occurred in Denmark and Sweden, which also offer wide varieties of school choice for families due to their voucher systems. If we wish to look within our own country to see the efficacy of smaller scale school choice programs, Florida has been the model for the past 2 decades. When Jeb Bush was governor, he oversaw one of the largest sSchool vVoucher plans in the nation. During his tenure, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress 4th grade reading test scores increased 2.5 points nationally, while scores in Florida increased 11 points. Just recently, another study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that following the uptick in school choice programs created by Florida’s current Governor, Ron Desantis, suspension rates dropped, while attendance rates and test scores increased above national averages. The most surprising effect was the increase in quality of Florida public schools. Despite having funding siphoned away due to students leaving for private schools with expanded school choice programs, it’s now been made clear that there were more important factors impacting the quality of education, beyond funding. Overcrowding has severely degraded the quality of inner city public schools, and in wake of school choice pulling students towards private schools, public school teachers have been able to more effectively teach with smaller class sizes. Additionally, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is the nation’s largest voucher program, with 36,290 enrollees as of 2019. This has led to Indiana shooting up in national rankings over the course of the last few years, when the program was expanded. 

Now you may be wondering, if the results of school choice are so clear, why isn’t it prevalent in the United States like it is in other countries? That’s a great question, especially considering that 83% of registered Republicans support school choice, as well as 70% of registered Democrats. Yet due to the partisan influence of teacher unions, Democrats politicians have not always acted in line with their voters. Teacher unions have consistently fought against school choice, yet many argue they have counterintuitively furthered school choice movements. Teacher uUnions have felt threatened by school choiceSchool Choice for years now, and COVID shined a light on that. Teacher unions were prominent advocates for the closure of schools, and this was even quantified in a study done by the Brookings Institution which showed that school districts with more expansive collective bargaining agreements were much less likely to begin the fall 2020 semester with in person learning. This led many families to pursue alternatives to public school, where union presence wasn’t as large. In response to this, teacher unions responded by essentially forcing schools closed. Since a school obviously can’t function without teachers, it puts the bargaining chips in teacher unions’ hands. They have constantly forced the hands of politicians, and will continue to do so. One can even suspect that Democrat politicians themselves understand the rationale for school choice, but they cannot publicly support it. Politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Governor Gavin Newsom fight against school choice, and will even go so far as to say private schools should be banned, but send their own children to private schools. Newsom’s largest opposition in his recall election was Larry Elder, a champion of school choice; in response, teacher unions have pumped over 2 million dollars in donations to Newsom. The lobbying efforts of teacher unions must not go unnoticed. The Heritage Foundation found that 46% of U.S. Senators have sent at least one of their children to private school, whereas only 10% of Americans send their children to private schools. The icing on the cake is knowing that public school teachers send their own children to private schools significantly more than the general populace. In Philadelphia, 44% of public school teachers send their children to private schools. The number is similar in most large urban cities, 41% in Cincinnati, 38% in Rochester, 34% in San Francisco, 33% in New York City. These teachers want their children to receive a premier education, but the unions want to deny that right to the rest of Americans. While only 10% of Americans send their children to private schools, 37% of those school parents would prefer to send their children to private schools, notwithstanding financial burdens. Another 21% of school parents would prefer sending their children to charter schools, or homeschooling them. Families want alternatives to public school, but teacher unions and wealthy politicians have preferred to keep those options for themselves.

For the future of our society, we must support politicians that will bring about meaningful change to the education system, and fight for every family’s choice. It’s great that Senator Warren and Governor Newsom can afford to send their children to private schools, but they must not deny that opportunity to the less fortunate. People of color have lagged behind in education for far too long, and it’s time we close that disparity. School voucher programs have ample evidence of lessening the inequality between races, especially among African Americans. In a study done by the Hoover Institution, the results were clear. Using a school voucher program, the African-Americans that switched to private schools scored a whopping 6.6 national percentile points higher on combined math and reading exams than the African-American students that stayed in public schools. 

It is critical that we fix America’s education system sooner rather than later, as this has become a modern civil rights issue. As the richest nation in the world, we have no excuse for such a lackluster education system. American colleges, while expensive, at least compensate in  quality. Our pre-tertiary education system cannot say the same, and school choice isn’t a difficult program to implement. level school choice programs have been enacted, starting with low-income families, in addition to many developed nations with school vouchers for all constituents. The number of students using school vouchers has seen exponential growth in the past few years, in light of the array of benefits it provides. The push for nationwide school choice must continue, and must not cease until all children are covered by school vouchers.

Thumbnail Credit: woodleywonderworks, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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