The following is a reflection on the Buckley Program’s Firing Line debate on school choice policy that featured Chester Finn and Henry Levin on 11.3.16
The Case Against School Choice
America’s public education system is in bad shape. We spend far more on public education than any other country, and compared to other Western countries we produce below average results. When we compare our elite colleges to other colleges in the world, ours tend to stand out above the rest. One can look at the characteristics of all of these schools and point to one common factor—they are all private institutions. As our most promising students are about to graduate from high school, they usually have numerous options of where they can choose to continue their education. They will attend some of the best institutions in the world, and go on to have successful lives.
Advocates of school choice use this model as their reasoning for allowing the same type of competition in both primary and secondary education. We currently have a system where many students are bound to whatever schools are located in their districts and regardless of their quality are forced to attend them (assuming they cannot afford to go elsewhere). The status quo obviously cannot remain and expect to improve over time. However, I believe that unbridled school choice—the type defended by Professor Finn in the Buckley Program’s school choice debate—will only make the situation worse, and already has done so in many parts of the country.
First, if conservatives believe that school choice is the correct stance simply because school choice is conservative, they should realize that there is hardly anything conservative about school choice. Unless we are to completely get rid of public education, the only way for school choice to be a completely competitive entity is for it to be in complete control of the government. Because private schools can arise without any say of the government, the government would have to force standards on the schools in order to compete with the private schools. Also, if conservatives value tradition, then school choice is the last thing we should defend. Schools fully subjected to the tides of the market will rise and fall as their quality rises and falls. While many public schools are currently underperforming, to shut them all down would mean to lose decades of traditions that have not only become a part of the student body, but also a part of the surrounding community. Advocates of unbridled school choice like Professor Finn are unsympathetic to this reality. Upon asking him what he believes the impact of losing traditions on the student body, he determined that traditions are relatively irrelevant to how students will perform in the school. This could not be further from the case. If we are to live in a society where everyone ought to have twelve years of free education (which other countries have convinced me is unnecessary), then we have to understand that not everyone who undergoes education will attend school for learning’s sake. Traditions, such as athletics, keep many students both in school and at least trying to do enough to maintain eligibility in whatever sport they play. For students who consider athletics secondary to education, they also rely on these students in this system because the government gives funding to each school program based on the amount of students in each school. Unless advocates of school choice also advocate letting people drop out of school whenever they please, then everyone will suffer at the hands of bad policy.
Second, school choice has not produced any of the results that it claims to produce. In Louisiana, a state that has historically pushed for school choice, schools in the inner cities have seen even more stratification in race and economic status. Louisiana public schools have also not raised their standards in recent years. Additionally, as Professor Levin asserted, the most recent report from the Brookings Institute determined that school choice programs in most cities have had mixed results at best. In places that had positive results, it was largely due to schools choosing students based on merit. There is hardly any evidence that school choice has actually worked to improve education in any city that is in dire need of education reform.
Thirdly, even in theory unbridled school choice does not seem plausible. Professor Finn and other advocates of school choice believe that the free market will allow for competition among the schools, which will raise the quality in education offered. However, I pressed him on how this industry will continue to raise quality unlike every other market, where firms set rates on what they will offer. In the airline industry, each major firm agrees on standards for prices, service, leg room, etc. In the cell phone industry, each major firm agrees on relative standards for prices, and they sell products that are all but identical. Finn had little to offer in opposition to these analogies, which leads me to believe that there is no opposition to this claim for school choice.
If there is something more in disarray than America’s public education system, it would be America’s policies for education reform. On the Left, Common Core has yet to remove doubts from those who fear bureaucracy running rampant in our school systems. However, the Right has little to offer as well. Each political party ought to search for other solutions to the problems of public education, else it will continue to either stagnate or go into decline.
Brandon McCoy is a sophomore in Davenport College.