Opinion: Busting the Anti-School Choice Myths

school choice
Private and Public sign | Image by M-SUR

The battle for school choice in Texas has entered a pivotal stage. Last week, Senate Bill 8, which establishes education savings accounts, cleared the Committee on Education and awaits a floor vote. Teachers’ unions and education bureaucrats wailed predictably, terrified that empowered parents will upturn the government-school monopoly.

The case for school choice is strong. Milton Friedman, Nobel laureate and perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th century, first made it in the fifties. It took a while for the momentum to build, but eventually pilot programs became the source of important data about how school choice works. The results are in, and they show unambiguously that school choice helps studentstaxpayers, and even existing government schools.

Opponents of school choice repeat a handful of superficially appealing but flawed arguments. Here are a few of the most common:

Education is a public good and must be provided by the government. In economics, “public good” is a technical term for things we consume that are non-rivalrous (me consuming more leaves no less for you) and nonexcludable (it’s difficult to prevent non-payers from consuming the good once it’s available). National defense is the classic example of a public good. The armed forces don’t have a harder time protecting the homeland when more babies are born, and at the same time, it’s infeasible to exclude any particular individual who didn’t pay his taxes from protection.

It’s clear that education does not fit the definition of a public good. First, the ubiquity of private schools shows that markets have no problem supplying education. Second, it fails the rivalry-excludability test. At some point, education materials—teacher time, textbooks, classroom space—become scarce. And it’s very easy to exclude non-payers: public school districts routinely refuse to admit non-residents in order to prevent free-riding. Notably, neither private nor public colleges have any trouble ensuring that only enrolled students occupy seats in a lecture hall or participate in labs. Why would it be any harder for K-12?

The argument for public education, properly understood, has nothing to do with its status as a public good. The Texas Constitution makes clear the purpose of government support is to ensure a “general diffusion of knowledge,” which means making quality education accessible to everyone. The purpose is public, but the best institutions to achieve that purpose may be private.

Nobody is looking to shut down Texas’s public schools; opponents of vouchers and education savings accounts who assert otherwise are being disingenuous. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that for some students, the best institution is a private school rather than a public school. Texans should have the freedom to pick the educational option that matches their needs and values.

School choice unjustly diverts public funds to private institutions. If you think so, better kiss Pell Grants and the G.I. Bill goodbye. These programs also make public funds available for use at private institutions. What matters is whether those institutions are serving a public purpose, not whether their employees are directly on Uncle Sam’s payroll.

Besides, many government programs, from food stamps to defense contracting permit public dollars to flow to private interests. These programs may have problems, but it’s absurd to suggest they’d work better if you could only use your EBT card at government-owned grocery stores or if we required the army to build its own tanks from start to finish.

K-12 education isn’t an exception to the logic of the make-vs.-buy decision. Private institutions can and do serve the public interest. We shouldn’t discriminate against them by giving government schools a captive customer base.

School choice will destroy rural school districts. Rural districts are almost always low-population districts. If even a few students withdraw, so the argument goes, funding for rural schools could dry up. These districts are also often the largest employer in the region. It’s understandable that rural citizens would be concerned.

Thankfully, they have nothing to worry about. Small, rural districts won’t support a robust market of private educational options, because there aren’t enough students to justify opening several private schools, if any. Parents could still use education savings accounts funds to explore homeschooling or microschooling, but these are niche options that won’t fit the needs of most families. It’s a shame that farm kids won’t have as many options as city kids, but school choice will not cause a mass exodus from rural school systems.

But the kids who need the most help are struggling students in failed urban schools. For them, school choice could very well be transformational. For rural districts, life will continue largely as it has before. And since many rural parents are happy with their schools, all is well and good. School choice won’t impose a one-size-fits-all model on Texans. Instead, it buttresses several education models so that students can find the one that works best for them. Unlike health insurance, if you like your government school, you can keep it.

Some arguments against school choice are well-intended yet mistaken. Others are made in bad faith to protect political privileges. It’s important to call out malign actors but only against the backdrop of reliable information. The studies demonstrating school choice’s efficacy give us strong reasons to support it. Conjoined with anti-choice myth busting, we have a powerful one-two punch that leaves government-school monopolists reeling.

To the members of the Texas House and Senate: It’s time to get this done. Your constituents are counting on you. Make school choice a reality by the end of this legislative session!

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  1. Daniel Jonathon Peters

    correct! the education industrial complex is about the providers riding the gravy train for their own benefit. Our schools are horrible. We graduate near illiterate students and expect them to be successful. Now they cover their inadequacies by trotting out ideological nonsense studies to distract everyone. Meanwhile, the amount of six figure administrator salaries is staggering. Why does a superintendent in Texas make more than the President of the United States?

    All these points are also valid for our public university system as well.

  2. sense

    I have paid school taxes since 1986 and I do not nor ever will have children. I went to public schools. I do not want my tax dollars going to an institution that is religiously affiliated. Separation of church and state. If you are for vouchers remember you will be funding belief systems you may not want to. How do you feel about Madrassas? If someone wants to send their child to private school, the choice has always been there. If someone takes an active interest in their child’s education then their child will more likely succeed. And some kids will never succeed. Finally, our state has a $56B school fund. How about we hire the best teachers for those who will be our future? And how about we give them the freedom to teach? And how about we find a way to deal with classroom management so a teacher doesn’t have to deal with discipline issues. That would be a good place for parent involvement. We complain about the money game in schools, but that all started with the no child left behind punitive funding. Then we added competency tests, so the teachers have to teach the test. And god forbid critical thinking is taught. Social promotion is alive and well. There are problems with public schools. We have the money to fix them. Texas need not be 34th in the country in education. Why don’t we figure out why we are 34th and then does the #1 state do vouchers? I don’t even know. In conclusion – I am not funding your kid to go to a private school. Let’s make the curriculum relevant and useful. And more importantly maybe we should get parents treating school as more than day care. How about treating the taxes mom and dad pay through ownership or rent be treated the same as paying out of their pocket for private education (if that is a motivator). i.e. be involved.

  3. dje3

    Both of my parents were school teachers. My father held Administrative credentials and my mother a doctorate in early childhood education.

    By 1980, my mother had decided that the only way to fix the direction or social gerrymandering in the school system was to initiate changes. Her model included school vouchers at the same value as given to public schools.

    Her second method of fixing was to change the pay method for teachers. Give them a draw against their wages, but only pay them for each student that passes a given subject test at grade level with a score above say 83%. The teachers would get FULL credit for that student even if it only took them 6 weeks. That student would then pass to the next grade in that subject immediately. This would make teachers work more with those that need more and make them more efficient. It would end teachers’ ability to attempt directed social change without paying a direct financial price. If they spend time attempting to “groom” children into a social change they lose income because they will never be paid of the student does not pass the grade test in subject.

    Plain, simple and direct. My mother was a brilliant person who never made any statement without consideration of all the ramifications of her opinion. She had a Doctorate in education and worked within the system. She knew this system could and would work and could see how to make it work or she would never have considered it.


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