Greg Forster, Ph.D. | September 2, 2020

Choice is what parents need in the era of COVID

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

A recent poll in Oklahoma finds remarkably strong support for giving parents school choice if schools don’t open—63% support it while only 31% oppose it. Even apart from whether schools open, the survey found support for a highly flexible choice policy at 54% v. 39%. That’s not surprising, at a time when parents are making some of the hardest and most intensely personal choices ever about education. With their children’s lives and futures at stake in a more intense way than ever before, parents are feeling just how constrained they are by the government monopoly on schooling. Choice would let each family handle the pandemic in the way it felt to be right.

It’s nothing new for education controversies to invoke strong emotions. When it comes to schools, both our children’s well-being and the future of our communities is at stake. That’s why education policy has long been one of the most heated political battlegrounds.

But the pandemic has raised the stakes even higher. As the question of reopening looms this fall, emotions are running stronger than ever. One side feels that real learning has ground to a halt, with potentially devastating long-term consequences; the other side feels that real health dangers are being ignored, with potentially devastating long-term consequences.

School choice is not a magic wand that removes tradeoffs and hard choices. But it allows parents to make the tradeoffs that make sense to them.

In my community, our public school board reversed itself twice, in August, on the question of whether schools would reopen for in-person learning in September. The start date was also delayed by two weeks, throwing parents’ plans into further confusion. And as I write these words, the board has planned an emergency meeting to consider whether or not to reverse itself a third time.

Who knows how many more positions they’ll have staked out by the time you read this article? Perhaps we’ll turn over management of our public schools to Erwin Schrödinger. Then they can be both open and closed at the same time.

This isn’t happening because the members of our school board are incompetent or evil. It’s happening because our community itself, which elects the board, is bitterly divided over whether schools should reopen. Different constituencies want different things, everyone’s tempers are high, and none of the available compromise positions—reopen with heavy precautions, reopen but have a digital option—is sufficiently satisfactory to a sufficiently large coalition of political factions. And so the struggle continues.

The decision-making structure of the government school monopoly is not designed to handle a problem like this. It can’t be designed to handle a problem like this. As long as the monopoly remains a monopoly, it can’t accommodate high-pressure differences on binary questions.

If everyone has to go the same way on every issue, you will have constant battles over which way everyone should go. Sometimes you can resolve those battles with a compromise that people can live with (although no one will be very satisfied with it). But sometimes you just can’t. Life doesn’t always offer you splittable differences; sometimes it offers you hard choices.

As long as the monopoly remains a monopoly, it can’t accommodate high-pressure differences on binary questions.

And it’s important to notice how the monopoly makes education hostage to an adversarial system. The immediate problem on any given day is the crisis over how to resolve issue X (whatever “issue X” happens to be today—the pandemic, reading pedagogy, race and American history, etc.). But the ongoing problem is that every day is a crisis because all big decisions about all important issues are made through conflict. They have to be, when you’re trapped in a monopoly.

Everything is different when parents have choice. Instead of being trapped and having to fight to impose their preferred policy on everyone, schools can offer different options and parents can choose the option they think best. Maybe one approach is more appropriate for some students while another is more appropriate for others; if so, choice is the only way to get there. But even if one approach really is best for all, it remains a stubborn fact that we do not agree about which approach is best, and choice is the only way to avoid endless conflict.

That’s why parents are seeing the value of choice like never before. A statewide survey of likely Oklahoma voters commissioned by OCPA asked whether parents in districts that don’t open up should “have the right to take their children and tax dollars to the school of their choice, whether public or private?” A whopping 63% agreed, strongly or somewhat, while only 31% disagreed. Fully 45%—almost a majority—said they “strongly agreed.”

The same survey asked if Oklahomans would support giving parents direct control over the public funds dedicated to supporting their child’s education, so they could spend those funds on private-school tuition or other educational services such as tutoring or after-school programs. This highly flexible form of school choice is commonly known as “education savings accounts.” After describing the policy, the survey found 54% supported it (35% strongly) while 39% opposed it.

School choice is not a magic wand that removes tradeoffs and hard choices. But it allows parents to make the tradeoffs that make sense to them, and are best for their particular child. In the short run, this defuses the otherwise irresolvable political disputes forced upon us by the monopoly. In the long run, it allows schools to operate as communities of learning with a shared mission and identity, rather than as constant political battlefields.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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