Education savings accounts. Universal voucher programs. Charter schools. These are words guaranteed to inspire heated debates among policymakers, parents, and educators. Teachers’ union leaders denounce school choice as part of a malicious “war on public education.” School choice advocates rail against “failing government schools.”
These debates manifest themselves as morality plays in which one is either for empowering parents or supporting public education. The resulting debate manages to ignore that all kinds of choices are hard-wired into American public education. It skips past the fact that the affluent already choose schools when purchasing homes, so the debate is really about the options available to everyone else.
As I note in The Great School Rethink, the vitriol is disconnected from what most families care about. In the course of the pandemic, for instance, when schools closed and millions of families were told they needed to keep their kids home, there was little interest in abstract debates about school choice or home schooling. Indeed, conventional demarcations—between home and school, public and private, and teachers and parents—were blurred.
Families were simply focused on finding options that met their needs. The fact that families want more options doesn’t mean they dislike their local schools.
Today, for instance, more than three-quarters of parents say that they were satisfied with their child’s experience in a public district school even as more than 7 in 10 endorse education savings accounts, school vouchers, and charter schools. In short, parents overwhelmingly like both their child’s public school and school choice policies. They don’t see a tension here.
How can we reconcile parental support for more choices with affection for their local public schools? It’s not hard, really. Parents want options. They may want alternatives when it comes to scheduling, school safety, or instructional approach. They want to be able to protect their kids from bullies or from school practices they find troubling. At the same time, they can value schools as community anchors, want to minimize how much time their kids spend in transit, and like their kids’ teachers.
This suggests a path forward in finding constructive common ground in some of our school choice fights. After all, from start to finish, public schooling is a stew of choices made by parents, students, educators, system officials, and policymakers. Parents choose whether to send their children to pre-K, when to start kindergarten, or whether to opt their child out of sex education. Students choose groups and activities, which electives to take, and which books to read for book reports. Teachers choose where to apply for a job, which materials they use, and instructional practice. District staff choose policies governing discipline, curricula, field trips, and attendance zones.
Outside of school, we take for granted that families will choose child-care providers, pediatricians, dentists, babysitters, and summer programs. Indeed, many such choices involve parents or guardians making decisions that are subsidized by government funds. And the choices they make will have big implications for a child’s health, well-being, upbringing, and education.
For much of the 20th century, it was a struggle just figuring out how to get students, books, and teachers together under one roof. At a time when transportation and communication were limited, educational choice was naturally constrained.
Today, those constraints are dusty memories. New tools have made it possible to communicate, share materials, deliver instruction, manage data, assess learning, and coordinate in ways that were once unimaginable. Textbooks are no longer a bottleneck. Virtual tutoring no longer seems like science fiction. And after millions of students were remote for over a year, taking select classes from far-off online instructors no longer seems especially novel. This has eroded notions of where the schoolhouse ends and choice begins.
Our time holds great promise for parents and educators frustrated with the inertia of stifling, impersonal systems. More options mean more ways for public schools to deliver and customize services. The same options that appeal to families can empower teachers and school leaders who feel stuck in unresponsive schools or bureaucracies.
That’s the real promise of educational choice: It allows parents, educators, and students to blur the old lines and rethink the work of teaching and learning. It’d be a shame if that becomes lost amid the shouting heads and social media outrage.