Raleigh, NC – Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interact with undergraduate and doctoral students at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education. My charge was to address the intersection of education policy and advocacy.
The discussion inevitably led to the subject of school choice. I explained how and why Republicans created private-school scholarship programs for low-income and special-needs students, removed some of the regulatory shackles on public charter schools, and provided greater flexibility for homeschool families.
I argued that the rapid growth in all three suggested that Republicans responded to a pent-up demand for choice, which their political opponents had ignored for a very long time.
But the growth of these choice programs worried one student. Shortly after my talk, I received an email that outlined some of her concerns. The student, who confessed that she “leaned liberal,” wrote:
If all parents were involved in their kids’ educations, school choice seems like a great option. But, many parents aren’t involved and can’t afford to drive their kids to school if their school of choice doesn’t offer transportation. Personally, I want choice of where I send my kids, but I’m also educated and informed.
Set aside, for the moment, the insinuation that families offered educational options are not “educated or informed” or that only those who are “educated and informed” should be able to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.
She raised two legitimate concerns. First, what happens when schools of choice are unable to offer the same level of services as district schools? Second, how do we ensure that parents have the information needed to make an informed choice?
Some have argued that schools that do not participate in the federal school lunch program or lack a formal transportation system discourage low-income families from seeking admission to a school of choice. Lawmakers have proposed legislation requiring North Carolina charter schools to provide these services.
I haven’t found any compelling evidence, however, that the absence of particular services is a deterrent. In fact, charter schools that do not operate buses offer reimbursements for transportation services, encourage ride-sharing, or look for others ways to ensure that children get to school.
Indeed, by choosing a school for their child, parents are joining a community that often works to solve problems through voluntary cooperation. Moreover, the school choice community cares deeply about the school selection process, not just legislative and legal victories.
There is universal agreement that all families must be supplied with information that is readily accessible and easy to understand. Some school choice organizations and advocacy groups, as well as government agencies, have set up multilingual websites, toll-free hotlines, and community meetings to assist parents as they make the best choice for their children.
Academic research confirms that parents, regardless of their economic circumstances, are willing and able to compare differences in student performance, class size, and student services in the school choice marketplace. In their 2008 Quarterly Journal of Economics study, “Information, School Choice, and Academic Achievement: Evidence from Two Experiments,” Justine Hastings and Jeffrey Weinstein found that low-income parents were much more likely to choose higher-performing schools when given basic information about the school.
More recent studies have found that low-income parents tend to transfer out of low-performing schools when labeled as such, but the benefits of those choices are dependent on the availability of superior options.
By opposing school choice in the name of social justice, many “educated and informed” liberals stand in the way of allowing low-income parents to improve the education of their children. Doing so denies those families the economic opportunities and social mobility that they so desperately seek.
Surely there is no justice in that.
Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.