A new study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation is a reminder that the most persuasive argument in favor of school choice is not the promise of higher test scores, the beneficial effects of competition, or even an escape hatch from failing public schools—it’s the power of choice to make a more satisfying range of school cultures and curriculum available than traditional public schools can accommodate.
For years, wonkish arguments for school choice mostly revolved around enhanced performance. Researchers and policymakers have long built the case for (or against) choice based on test scores or other measurable metrics to demonstrate that choice “works.” The rapid growth of charter schools, for example, has long been framed as a moral imperative: a lifeboat to rescue students from failing schools, and a means of pressuring traditional public schools to improve or lose students to competition. More recently, some have offered choice as a means of disarming combatants in our ongoing “culture wars.” This train of thought brings us a little closer to putting school culture and curriculum at the center of the case for choice, but it still treats those things as a means, not an end in itself.
These common arguments for choice are lost on those actually doing the choosing. An analysis of the growth of classical charter schools in Texas by Albert Cheng and Cassidy Syftestad, suggests that parents are choosing those schools because of the intrinsic appeal of an education for their children grounded in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. The pair surveyed 431 parents with children enrolled in Texas classical charter schools and convened focus groups for 25 of them to discuss their educational priorities for their children and what they liked or disliked about their child’s school. They found that “parents’ educational priorities aligned with the priorities of classical education,” which has seen a big spike in demand in Texas and elsewhere. Parents expressed “strong desires for their children to grow in wisdom and virtue,” they explain.
To be clear, parents in the study were asked to rate the importance they placed on a number of educational goals, including understanding core academic subjects, fostering independent thinking, preparation for future employment, and forming civic and moral virtues. The study did not explore their motivation for seeking an alternative to traditional public school in the first place. However, “even those who sought an escape from the public school system and shopped around chose their classical charter because they found the model attractive,” Syftestad tells me. “There were many other options they could have chosen.”
There’s a lesson in this for school choice advocates and their policymaker allies. When choice is framed as simply an alternative to traditional public schools, or we look no further than measurable student outcomes such as test scores to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two unquestioned assumptions, both remarkable and neither of which captures the intrinsic appeal of school choice: first, that the purpose of schooling is merely to raise test scores, and secondly that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.
Each of these suggests an impoverished vision of education and a lack of appreciation for the dynamism and variety choice could bring to families. Framing choice as a means of escaping failing schools, or even to avoid culture war conflict is a less compelling and more divisive pitch than, “Your kid’s school is fine, but would you prefer a classical curriculum? Maybe a tech-focused school or project-based learning? How about a school that reflects your child’s interests and affirms your family’s values?” The need to satisfy the broadest imaginable constituency makes it challenging for traditional public schools to specialize in ways that come easily to schools of choice.
While steering public funds from underperforming schools or promoting competition to force weak schools to improve or close are valid considerations, such impersonal arguments sell short the full potential of school choice. Advocates would be well-advised to emphasize the rich tapestry of educational models and approaches that school choice can create.