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The Debate on School Choice. It’s About the Kids, Right?

The debate on school choice has always been a perplexing one for me as we are a society surrounded by countless choices. As I drive down Bell road, I see not one car dealership but multiple, each with a variety of car models and colors. At the grocery store, one can choose between organic or non-organic, generic or brand name, low-fat or regular. Various selections exist in our world because our society today expects these choices be available. Each individual in our world is different; different personalities, different tastes and different learning styles. So why the debate over school choice?

Since the answer to this question is not an easy one, I decided to research the topic to get a better understanding of both sides of the debate. The first thing that stood out from my research is that data supporting or opposing school choice is limited due to significant variations among communities, schools and districts (Benveniste, Carnoy & Rothstein, 2003). Public, charter and private are all susceptible to struggles, whether it be academic or behavioral based (Benveniste et al., 2003). Socioeconomic community status, parent participation and differences in the conception of what qualifies as valuable education all contribute to the complexity of analyzing available data (Benveniste et al., 2003). Both private and charter schools have shown to be more efficient at meeting parent needs and have the benefit of being given more discretion on curriculums (Benveniste et al., 2003). Yet multiple studies show student achievement remains stagnant among students who utilize the school choice option (Barrow & Rouse, 2008).

So why is school choice important? Academic success is not based solely on test scores or high-grade point averages; student behavior, parent participation and parent satisfaction all factor into one’s academic success (Benveniste et al., 2003). A parent’s decision to choose what school environment is right for their child should never be discounted. When asked, parents who take advantage of school choice options are more satisfied with the new school than are parents of similar socioeconomic background whose children attend public schools (Carnoy, 2001). A parent’s decision to move their child from a public to private school, public to charter school, or leave the school institution all together and opt for schooling from home are based on numerous factors. Parents may desire the socialization of the child to a certain set of values provided by private religious schools or an environment with a strict zero tolerance policy (Benveniste, 2003). I attended Catholic schools that would not hesitate to expel a student caught smoking off campus, even if the student was on their own time wearing non-uniform clothing. Whatever the reason, a parent should be given the opportunity to take full advantage of the resources available to them. I believe it is okay for parents to be self-serving when it comes to their child’s safety, happiness and education; I know I am.

Arguments against school choice focus primarily around the notion that school choice is a threat to public school education. School choice policies are still considered to be in the early stages of enactment, limiting research on their current success or failure. Initial data suggests that the expansion of educational choice options does not exhibit any serious effects on parent communities with lower levels of education (Abernathy, 2005). Data has also indicated that there is no significant difference in declines between higher and lower income parents from the expansion of student exits from the public sector (Abernathy, 2005). Some argue that school choice policies encourage both charter and private schools to skim off the top, leaving public schools with lower performing students. The problem I have with that argument is that there is no evidence suggesting either charter or private schools recruit high performing students from nearby public schools. The decision to move a child away from the public-school model is solely left to the parents. Should self-interest behavior by parents who desire the best educational experience for their child be shamed because some fear it may damage the larger democratic community? Why should the parents who want to fight for their child’s education be denied that possibility simply because it is not a homogeneous desire among all school parents? Parent participation throughout a student’s educational experience is ideal but is not something that can be forced. Why hold back those willing to fight for more, just to appease a standard set by others who remain apathetic? If public schools fear that they may lose parent activism or political resources to school choice, then perhaps administrators should take the time to ask why valuable parents are pulling their children from public schools and use the information gathered to actually become a more desirable educational option. Those who criticize parents for prioritizing their family over their local public school should remember that public schools are also self-serving; public school activists fights for money, public resources, parent participation and parent resources associated with each student.

I fear we have become a society that villainizes one’s desire to become better and expect more. Parents who prioritize their family have been made the enemy or the problem. Parents are not the failing school’s enemy, parents are the failing school’s biggest asset; their value, contribution and influence should be acknowledged regularly and if any school fails to meet a student’s needs, then that student’s parent should have every right to seek out a school that can. Why? Because school choice is about what is in the best interest for our children not our public institutions. Because school choice IS about the kids!

Abernathy, S. (2005). Over the Principal’s Shoulder. In School Choice and the Future of

American Democracy (pp. 49-72). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from

Barrow, L., & Rouse, C. E. (2008). School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent

Evidence, Remaining Questions. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1267346

Benveniste, L., Rothstein, R., & Carnoy, M. (2003). All else equal: are public and private

schools different? Routledge Falmer.

Carnoy, M., & Economic Policy Inst., W. D. (2001). School Vouchers: Examining the Evidence.

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