Education has long been promoted as the primary means to uplift and empower people by advocates from across the political spectrum. In response to poor student performance, school choice has been promoted by a wide range of reformists and privatization advocates as a means to empower students whose futures are dimmed by poorly performing public schools. As the March 29th keynote speaker of the Brookings Institute, Trump Administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos revived calls to use education and choice to empower young Americans while framing the question of public or private as an issue of success instead of an issue of government’s role in education. Although success certainly does trump the question of private or public, as well as nonprofit or for-profit, school choice is not the only, or necessarily the most effective, means of empowering students and parents in their quest for a better education.
Choice can be a powerful force when a critical mass of students and parents choose to abandon one institution for another. Because success in education and the ability to seize opportunities depends on a multitude of variables, there must be an adequate number of choices for competition to have a meaningful and constructive impact on the quality of the choices available. With that in mind, the Achilles Heel of competitions has always been the tendency for unsustainable, degenerative competition to eliminate alternatives and, eventually, yield ineffective private monopolies, which crush fledgling competitors and tend to be far less responsive to public opinion than existing public controlled monopolies. As such, more than school choice is needed to empower students in their pursuit of an education that will allow them to learn and thrive beyond their school years.
There are many reasons why parents and students might choose one school over another when given the opportunity and choice. A handful of choices is, therefore, likely not going to be enough to transform public schools, which suffer from a multitude of diverse issues that go beyond the quality of the education they provide. The current manner in which proposals fund school choice will, however, divert funds away from public schools, which is assuredly going to degrade the functionality of public schools. Spending more in nonstrategic ways, such as pumping money into the salaries of school administrators or diverting funds to private investors, will do nothing. Adequate funding for learning tools and resources is, however, essential to develop a school environment that fosters learning. This is why public schools need to be properly funded and private schools need to attract adequate numbers of students capable of infusing cash into their businesses
Unfortunately, choice always comes at a cost. To sustain two or more choices, it costs more money than maintaining one school. As an alternative to private school choice, internet-based education programs, such as the Pennsylvania Cyber Carter Schools, offer less expensive alternatives to private schools that rely on physical infrastructure. Another means of offering more choice inside public schools would be to reform certification programs to allow professionals and professional degree holders into schools. Certifications should be an easily obtained means of verifying someone’s qualifications, not a technical barrier keeping professionals out. Today’s system considers a gym teacher who completed a teaching certificate program more qualified to teach a science class in public school than someone with a physics degree lacking a certification. Schools must have greater latitude to recruit the best and brightest options available.
In embracing these options, the pivotal, and contentious, question of whether or not government dollars should be funneled to private industry can be avoided. While there are many who believe in privatization for the sake of privatization, there should be a compelling reason for government to privatize one of its function; otherwise, privatization becomes an excuse to ensure government remains dysfunctional. If the private industry can do it better, the government should be able to do it better as well. There is no fundamental reason public schools cannot do better, especially when it comes to primary education. Education is not, after all, an industry where intellectual property concerns exist and a shortage of technical knowledge necessitates a reliance on private industry. Quite frankly, it is also not the responsibility of government to simply tax Americans to pay for what people want. The responsibility of government is the general welfare of the American People, thus government should pay to reform public schools, not pay for private schools.
That said, government should defer to the authority of parents and parents. Government has no right to deny or impede access to private schools that, at minimum, embrace the same standards as public schools. Because choice is not enough and the need for proper governance restricts the role of the government, it is helpful to recognize schools are the primary responsibility of State and local governments with the Federal government supposed to play a supporting role. This means the Federal government can offer extra funding to school districts unable to provide for the needs of their students and help set national standards, but it is improper for the Federal government to seize control of public schools or crush public schools by funding private competitors. Instead of just coercing school districts, which must always honor the rights of students protected by the Federal government, the Federal and State governments should utilize their resources and expertise to help support school districts while finding new ways to empower students.
Due to their dependence and size, many school boards and administrations represent the most influential government at the local level. Like the Federal and State governments, there are times when members of these local governments come to abuse their power and grow increasingly unresponsive to the will of parents and students. Aside from supporting local schools, the Federal government must, therefore, also empower parents and students by giving them greater control over how their schools are run. In practice, this does not means striping away standards or giving parents the power to fire teachers who give their children bad grades. It means giving parents and students, as groups, greater recourse when school administration act counter to their interests or abuse their power. It means making public schools more responsive to the needs of the People they serve.
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