Children’s best advocates like school choice
March 31, 2022
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Suppose you’re in the market for a new automobile. Because of the size of your family, your daily habits, how much you need the vehicle for work and the commute involved, your physical size, and any number of other objective characteristics, you have a set of fairly unique criteria that determine the vehicle you desire. Of course, there are other considerations—such as what colors are appealing, whether you’re concerned with gas mileage, and the extent to which affordability is a concern.
All of these issues make it important that you be the one to pick the vehicle. Few can afford a truly custom ride, so compromises must be made, but with the ability to decide which compromises are tolerable, your own choice of vehicle is the one that will most likely best suffice, and possibly even outright please.
But now, suppose there is a vehicle assignment agency of the government and this agency selects a vehicle for you. Your only input is to vote every few years for one of the members of the committee that oversees this agency. The agency might solicit some input, but it consists of professional bureaucrats who are experts in determining vehicular needs, so you get what they give you.
Having someone else select your new vehicle is not likely to lead to the highest degree of satisfaction with that vehicle. Were studies to be conducted comparing satisfaction with vehicles picked by the agency to satisfaction with vehicles picked by those who use them, it’s obvious that greater satisfaction would occur for those who made their own choices.
This is exactly what the research says about parental satisfaction with schools in a choice regime as compared to parents whose only choice is traditional public schools.
It is no surprise that in the 30 high-quality studies of parental satisfaction in the context of school choice identified by the school choice advocacy organization EdChoice, only two instances of parental dissatisfaction are identified. Indeed, satisfaction is overwhelmingly the case.
Fully 28 studies show increased parental satisfaction. A look at these studies shows that this increased satisfaction is not always a result of picking a private school. Depending on the program being studied, parents might have chosen a charter school or a different traditional public school. Whatever the choice and whatever the criteria, parents are obviously more satisfied with their own choices than with the choice made for them by remote school bureaucracies based on school district and attendance zones drawn on a map decades ago.
Some might say this is reasonable enough, but do parents make their choices for good, sound reasons? Are parents pleased just because the school is convenient? Do some just want a school that’s easy and makes few demands? The reasons parents choose the schools they choose are varied, but patterns do arise, and overall, parents make decisions based on what most would consider sound criteria.
Studies of education choice programs in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Georgia, just to note a few, show that parents regard educational quality to be among the top few reasons for choosing a given school. Other major reasons for choosing a school include whether it offers religious instruction, how safe the school environment is, whether good values are taught, the disciplinary environment, class size, and individual instruction. The reasons for choosing a school hint at why parents look for alternatives. Often, their children are not academically challenged and are getting in trouble at school. School administrators do not respond appropriately. Other problems might include persistent bullying. Or, perhaps a student isn’t getting the attention a parent believes they deserve.
No one person, no one corporation, and certainly no one school can be all things to all people. The very best organizations have a single-minded mission even when they have to do multiple things well to accomplish that mission. Southwest Airlines, widely considered one of the best-run airlines, has the singular task of moving people from one airport to another on aircraft. Other functions like food and drink service are ancillary to that. Many would say the public schools’ educational mission requires ancillary functions such as sports, food services, psychological counseling, and entertainment production, but much of what school officials do today distracts from educating.
Moreover, schools have many different children with different learning needs, different main interests, and different dispositions coming from different backgrounds. Public schools cannot do all these things well. Thus, it is no surprise that parents can and do find alternatives that are better fits for their specific children. And, it’s no wonder that when parents of special needs children take advantage of Florida’s McKay scholarship or Oklahoma’s Lindsay Nicole Henry scholarship, that those parents are pleased with the result.
To be sure, there are parents whose main criterion for choosing a school is convenience. However, with competitive pressures pushing schools toward providing quality education, the relatively few poor parents making less than thoughtful school choices for their children are likely to avail their children of a relatively positive educational experience. But the real mystery is why parents whose bored children become troublemakers, or whose children have special talents, or whose children are bullied, are not allowed to make better matriculation choices for their children. These issues are no less important for these children and their long-term contributions to society than disabilities.
In the end, studies show that the people who know children the best and who generally have the very best interests of children at heart—parents—are overwhelmingly satisfied that they are improving their children’s education with school choice. Shouldn’t we let them?