Greg Forster, Ph.D. | September 4, 2019

To help with childhood trauma, expand school choice

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Opinion leaders in Oklahoma are focusing on what can be done about high rates of childhood trauma. It’s obviously a topic worth being concerned about. One of the most well-established policy remedies for this problem, however, doesn’t seem to be part of the conversation in Oklahoma: expanding school choice.

There is no question about the priority Oklahoma’s leaders are giving to childhood trauma—or Adverse Childhood Experiences, in the technical language. The state superintendent of schools has held two big summits on the topic, the second attracting the participation of Oklahoma’s First Lady. The Tulsa World has run an eight-part series.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the policy upshot of all this attention is dominated by the usual focus on indiscriminate spending increases. The superintendent is handing out $12.5 million in federally funded mental health grants to schools. The press release touting the bonanza is careful to describe the amounts and sources of the funding—$8.6 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, $3.7 million from the U.S. Department of Education, and $148,661 from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Expanding school choice is not an alternative to providing greater access to effective trauma services. It is the best way to provide greater access to effective trauma services. Even better, it would greatly reduce the number of children who need such services in the first place.” —Greg Forster

For generations, public school systems have tried to solve every problem in sight by throwing money around. Almost always, as here, the goal of the spending is defined in terms of inputs rather than outputs—the spending will be considered successful if schools start a lot of programs and do a lot of activities, regardless of whether they actually help anybody. So schools know from the beginning that there will be no accountability for results.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of indiscriminate spending has a long track record of failure. Unsurprisingly, its failure hasn’t put even so much as a dent in its popularity among politicians (a category that very much includes superintendents). They benefit from being in the position of “person who throws money around.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m strongly in favor of mental health care and other trauma services. I had a traumatic childhood myself, and I benefited enormously from some of the same mental health services these grants will support. I still benefit from them today.

The problem isn’t that we’re striving to expand access to these valuable services. The problem is that the spending doesn’t come with clear goals—real goals, outcome goals rather than input goals. And without real goals there can of course be no accountability for performance.

In other words, my objection is that expanding access to these services isn’t actually the purpose of this spending. The real purpose is to let politicians throw money around. If the purpose were the services, there would be goals and accountability. But that rarely happens in the government school monopoly.

The usual reply to concerns such as this—other than “you’re cruel and heartless for asking whether the money we spend on helping people actually helps people”—is to lament how hard it is to have a positive impact on such intractable problems. When children are abused or mistreated, or have mental health disorders or other traumatic problems, they lose their proper chance to grow in their human potential. Getting wounded people on the road to recovery and growth is very, very hard.

That is all true. It is not, however, a reason to spend large amounts of money without accountability. It is a reason to look for more promising policy approaches.

We have known for many years now that private school choice, which puts parents in charge of education, doesn’t just raise test scores. It provides better childhood life experiences. We often discuss school choice in terms of academic outcomes because that’s what policymakers and opinion leaders typically care most about. That focus is not coming from the actual families who want choice. 

Numerous surveys of parents using school choice reveal that test scores and other academic outcomes are not the primary thing parents are seeking when they sign up for school choice. They want a safer, healthier, and more orderly school environment, and an education that will help their children grow in character. And the parents—the only people who are really in a position to judge—overwhelmingly report that this is exactly what they get from school choice.

Many states, including Oklahoma, have adopted school choice programs for special-education students. These programs are popular precisely because special-needs students have it rough and have very specific needs. Instead of expecting one-size-fits-all government schools to customize an education for all these students, which they simply can’t do, it makes much more sense to let each family customize its own educational situation—find the school that works for them.

One of the most important benefits of these programs is precisely that they dramatically reduce trauma at school for these students. I helped conduct a study of the first and largest of these special-needs choice programs, the McKay program in Florida. Participating students were bullied far less in choice schools. In public schools, 46.8% were bothered often and 24.7% were physically assaulted because of their disabilities, while in choice schools 5.3% were bothered often and 6.0% were assaulted. The students’ own behavior problems also dropped in choice schools; 40.3% of participants said their special-education children exhibited behavior problems in their public schools, but only 18.8% had problems in their choice schools. That’s on top of very positive findings for the program for services provided, overall parental satisfaction, and other factors.

Choice reduces childhood trauma for a variety of reasons. Partly it’s that private schools are allowed to have more effective discipline policies, to keep bullies in line. Partly it’s that private schools are better incentivized to provide effective services—including mental health services—to their students. And partly it’s that private schools, because they are not government bureaucracies, can maintain the kind of mission-focused organizational culture that provides a healthier daily experience.

Here’s the thing: the logic that makes school choice make sense for kids with special needs applies to everybody. It isn’t just special-needs children who experience childhood trauma. Every family should have the freedom to protect and care for their own children, and that can only happen by giving parents control.

Last year, a number of cases came to light in Oklahoma in which minority students were being targeted by racist bullies. One family was finally given permission—permission!—to transfer their child out of the school where he was being constantly persecuted. Untold thousands more children continue to suffer in their assigned government schools, whether because of racist bullying or whatever other adversity they experience, because they didn’t happen to catch the attention of the media and make the system look bad.

Why on earth should one family get permission to choose, and not everyone else? Why should even that one family have had to go begging to the powerful and get permission to protect their own child? Did we lose a war?

Universal school choice, on top of improving educational outcomes for those who use it and also for those who don’t, would provide immediate relief to every Oklahoma student coping with childhood trauma. Short of that, Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program has wide student eligibility. If the arbitrary limit on the program’s size were removed, huge numbers of kids would benefit.

Expanding choice is not an alternative to providing greater access to effective trauma services. It is the best way to provide greater access to effective trauma services. Even better, by protecting kids, it would greatly reduce the number of children who need such services in the first place. Shouldn’t that be the key goal here?

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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